ASPEN, Colo.—"Demographic change," Paul Taylor explains, "is a drama in slow motion." The United States is undergoing two simultaneous transformations. It's becoming a majority non-white country, and a record number of Americans are aging.
But this kind of change is paradoxical—"even though it happens all around us, it's sometimes hard to see." As Taylor, who researches demographic and generational changes at the Pew Research Center, observed, "You don't hold a press conference to announce that we're becoming older or becoming majority non-whites."
Still, Taylor believes America did experience a watershed moment of sorts. It wasn't the election of Barack Obama. It wasn't the U.S. birth rate hitting a record low in 2013. Instead, it was the Super Bowl. Specifically this year's Super Bowl commercials.
During a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Taylor showed three ads that aired during the football game or shortly thereafter.
One, a Cheerios commercial, showed a black father and a white mother telling their biracial daughter, via cereal, that they were expecting a baby boy (the ad was a sequel to a controversial spot that ran last spring).
The second ad, a divisive Coca-Cola commercial, featured Americans of various ages, races, and religions singing "America the Beautiful" in different languages.
The third, from Chevrolet, depicted an assortment of families—a heterosexual couple with one child, multi-generational households, single parents, a gay couple with two kids. "While what it means to be a family hasn't changed, what a family looks like has," the narrator says. "This is the new us."
If these commercials had footnotes, they might look something like these charts, from Taylor's "Next America" study for Pew. (Note that in the third graph, on the immigrant share of the population, the U.S. is actually returning to its makeup before a wave of immigration restrictions between the 1920s and 1960s.)
Corporations, Taylor pointed out, generally aren't the ones affecting social change—they're the ones affirming it. "Product advertisers are not in the business of making political statements, and they're certainly not in the business of making political enemies, not when they're spending $4 million for 30 seconds before the biggest national audience we have," he said. "Each of them surely knew, because they focus-group these things to death, and they market-research these things to death, that if you have images of parents who are opposite race and same sex, and if you have 'America the Beautiful' being sung in six or seven different languages, you are going to offend some portion of your customer base."
Clearly, the calculation at Coca-Cola, General Mills, and General Motors was that those outraged customers would be in the minority.