Since before it became an independent nation state in 1821, Mexico’s population has been troubled by issues of race and class. When Europeans arrived to colonise the Americas more than 500 years ago, they introduced a social hierarchy based on skin colour and race that persists to this day.
In contemporary Mexican advertising and films, lower class people are almost always shown with darker skin and richer class people with white skin. The lead character in the Oscar-winning film Roma, for example, is a darker skinned maid – representing somebody considered poor in Mexico. Her boss is rich and white.
Some Mexican companies choose to feature white skinned models to represent their Mexican brands, ranging from beer to designer clothing. This so-called “aspirational advertising” has become common practice for most advertising agencies in Mexico.
I’ve worked in the Mexican advertising industry for the last 25 years, and have witnessed this at first hand. My recently published research examines how this aspirational advertising demonstrates racial and social inequalities in Mexico, and reinforces colonial thinking in the country.
International Latin American look
The powerful Garza Lagüera family still has a major say in the beer industry in Mexico even after selling a major stake of their beer empire to Heineken International. One of its beers is Tecate, which has broadcast some very controversial adverts in Mexico.
In 2013, one campaign featured a billboard poster that showed three slim women with light skin at a bar with the headline: “Buffet. It’s easy to be a man. Tecate Beer, for you.” The advert, which offended Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights, was taken down by the bottler only after a public outcry about the ad being sexist.
As well as presenting women as objects to be consumed, the advert featured a specific type of “look” seen in a lot of Mexican advertising. This is referred to by marketers in the industry as the “international Latin American look”, consisting of people with light skin, dark eyes, and dark hair. When advertising agencies or production companies contact casting agents they ask them to send models that reflect this idealised Latino rather than typical people you’d see walking down the streets.
Another Tecate beer commercial in 2018 featured Sylvester Stallone as a coach being pursued by five Mexican men, who want him to coach them for the World Cup in Russia. All the guys have the same colour skin tone as Stallone, an Italian American. It’s an example of how an advert can imply that a brand is preferred by white, middle class people.
In contrast, darker skinned people are usually shown in adverts for charities, representing poor families, from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who are in need of donations. They are rarely used by advertisers to represent an aspirational or desirable lifestyle.
A recent campaign created in 2018 for the luxury department store chain Palacio de Hierro, tried to make the brand appear diverse by featuring an androgynous model, a freckled model, and a disabled person. Sounds great, except they were all still light skinned.
The perception within the Mexican advertising industry is that if a white person uses a specific brand, the product is considered to be desirable. Mexican marketers believe that if a consumer buys an “aspirational” product that is used by a lighter skinned person, the consumer thinks they are participating in a desirable “white” lifestyle.
But brands must tread carefully if they try to tackle this issue head on. In 2018, a social media campaign for a beer called “Indio” or Indian, tried to raise awareness of racism in Mexico. The campaign, #OrgullosamenteIndio (#proudlyIndian) featured Mexicans wearing a t-shirt with a racist insult with one of the words crossed out. Instead of reading “fucking Indian” one reads “proudly Indian”. Only – the campaign still used models that were predominantly white.
The campaign backfired on social media with a torrent of memes and posts making fun of the “lack of sensitivity” and calling it a “racist” campaign, with some Twitter users claiming that models with darker skin had been made “whiter in photoshop”. It’s a technique I’ve also highlighted in my research.
The Spanish created a racist and classist society in Mexico, with power held mainly in the hands of a few European families. These values are now so part of Mexican society that they still permeate advertising and culture in the country. But when “aspirational advertising” relies only on models who have an “international Latin American look”, it reinforces the divisions of Mexico’s troubled history.