Advertising is breaking new barriers. Fading are the days when families were portrayed like the Cleavers in the 1960s sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.”

Big-name brands such as General Mills and Target are just as likely today to feature biracial and same-sex partners in their marketing campaigns as they are to depict a more traditional husband-and-wife-with-two-kids-and-a-dog focus.

And professionals in the ad agency world love it.

“I told my daughter when she was in preschool that there are many different kinds of families: a mommy and a daddy, one mommy or daddy, two daddies, two mommies. Family is just family, no matter how it shows up,” said Jennifer Johnson, a former agency creative director who now teaches advertising and brand strategy at the University of Minnesota. “Advertising professionals tell stories that come from the truth. And when clients give us the green light to tell the whole story, we step on the gas.”

General Mills has twice featured a biracial family in its Cheerios ad campaign, including a critically acclaimed one that ran during the Super Bowl earlier this year.

In that ad, called “Gracie,” the daughter of a white mom and a black dad watches as her dad counts out Cheerios to explain to Gracie that she is going to have a baby brother. “And a puppy,” Gracie replies as she adds a fifth Cheerio to the four already on the table representing the family.

But a previous ad in 2013 featuring Gracie and her mixed-race family raised such negative reaction that General Mills disabled the comment function on a YouTube version of the commercial.

“We were surprised by the initial reaction, but we knew there were many kinds of families out there, and we continued to run the spot,” said Camille Gibson, General Mills’ vice president of marketing for Cheerios.

“Cheerios is a brand that’s about families. We will continue to tell the story of Cheerios and families regardless of the makeup,” Gibson added.

Reflective of social change

While there has been some backlash on the new generation of family advertising, brands and agencies have mostly earned praise for their willingness to step outside of the box.

“It’s a huge positive that General Mills did this,” said Stacy DeBroff, a Boston-based brand consultant and CEO of Influence Central. “It’s a reality, and it reflects reality in society. Anyone who goes to a kindergarten meeting sees this. We are out of the Norman Rockwell, picket-fence norm. This will become much more mainstream.”

Target has twice featured gay couples in its advertising.

The first was in 2012 for the retailer’s wedding-registry campaign called “Be yourself, together.” It featured two men embracing.

The second, more recent, ad is part of Target’s “Made to matter” campaign that shows a gay couple finger painting with their child.

Target, which added its name earlier this year to a legal brief in federal court supporting same-sex marriage, said through a spokeswoman that it is totally comfortable with family and relationship depictions beyond the traditional mode.

“As a company, we are committed to diversity and inclusivity in everything we do,” said Target’s Molly Snyder. “We want to celebrate the communities in which we work and live and serve.”

Diversity award winners

The Minneapolis ad agency Peterson Milla Hooks (PMH) won a Mosaic Award from the American Advertising Federation for diversity achievement earlier this year for a campaign it did for the clothier Gap called “Make Love.”

The campaign featured a series of photos of models, some famous, some not, usually pictured in pairs. One photo featured Sikh actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia dressed in a traditional turban and sporting a long dark beard. The photo of Ahluwalia next to fashion filmmaker Quentin Jones ultimately became the face of the campaign after news reports about a poster in a New York subway terminal being defaced with the words “Make Bombs” and “Please stop driving taxis.”

“In a way, I’m almost grateful for the idiot who vandalized it because he gave Gap the public platform to stand up to hate,” said Tom Nowack, president of PMH.

Another Mosaic Award winner was Mike Lescarbeau, CEO of the Minneapolis agency Carmichael Lynch. Lescarbeau was honored for his agency’s support of BrandLab and the Lagrant Foundation, whose programs encourage students of color to choose advertising careers.

“We want an inclusive presence in the place where the work is being created,” Lescarbeau said in an interview. “Without that, we forget that the world is comprised of all kinds of people. Advertisers don’t want to be out of step with the rest of society.”

The use of nontraditional families and diverse subjects in 21st-century advertising shows the evolution of marketers and brands trying to be relevant to consumers in a changing world.

“Years ago some networks were particular about couples in commercials wearing wedding rings,” recalled Johnson, whose agency résumé includes Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Carmichael Lynch, Campbell Mithun and the Foley Group. “If we wanted the major networks to air our efforts, we had to make sure that people appeared to be married.”

DeBroff agreed.

“Years ago it was controversial to show a new mom at age 45. Now ads are talking to new moms in their 40s and their 20s,” DeBroff said. “But there are still a lot of prejudices.”