Summer 2003

In any colour so long as it’s white

Why does Mexican advertising look nothing like the Mexicans?

‘Design shapes culture. Designers, more than most others, are in a position to celebrate societal differences, to embrace the vernacular and to help avoid the unhappy melding of unique cultures into a bland global stew. In the face of monolithic pressures to conform, designers can become champions of the unique things that dignify human beings and that make our civilisations different.’ (Robert L. Peters, Icograda President, March 2002)

Leaf through the glossies; glance up at any billboard: rarely, if ever, will you encounter any indigenous-looking faces. Switch on the TV and flick through the daily diet of soaps: seldom are those faces to be found there either – not in the programmes, or in the ads – unless they belong to ‘cheery housemaids’, dutifully serving the trashy white families around whom the telenovelas revolve.

Amid the frantic bustle of Mexico City and its 20 million or so inhabitants, this perverse portrait of the country’s ethnic make-up takes a short while to strike you; once it does it is hard to ignore. The more familiar you become with the highly varied appearance of the mixed race and indigenous masses flowing through this Latin American megalopolis, the more bizarre the commercial images become. Nor is this marketing phenomenon solely restricted to Mexico City: once you head off into primarily indigenous regions, the gulf between the real world and the polished, ‘aspirational’ world of the ad industry reaches surreal proportions.

Antonio (‘El Corcito’) Ruiz’s poignant 1937 painting, Verano (Summer), shows us that the schism between consumer images and indígenas (indigenous people) – and the sense of alienation that accompanies this schism – is nothing new in Mexico. Today, however, as US corporations are given ever easier access to Mexico under relaxed North American Free Trade Agreement rules; as international advertising agencies come to dominate greater portions of the marketing industry; and as the Mexican government spends more and more time in bed with big business, many believe the separation between the real world and the marketing world is becoming more extreme and increasingly destructive. It may, these critics argue, even be contributing to a level of dissatisfaction – especially among the poorest people in Mexican society – that can be linked to an epidemic of crime, violence and abuse.

Perhaps because the issue is itself a political one, a reliable breakdown of the country’s ethnographic composition is hard to find. Using a primarily linguistic yardstick, the Mexican government classifies a mere six per cent of the population as ‘indígena’; fourteen pfer cent as ‘White’; and 55 per cent as ‘mestizo’ (mixed Amerindian-Spanish). (Strangely, government figures leave a full 25 per cent of the population unaccounted for.) According to the CIA Handbook, however, a full 30 per cent of the population is defined as ‘Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian’; 60 per cent as ‘mestizo’; nine per cent as ‘White’; and one per cent as ‘Other’. These figures are much closer to those suggested by the influential Mexican writer and polemicist, Carlos Monsiváis. ‘Seventy percent of the population is still ethnically Indian,’ he told me. ‘Ninety per cent is mestizo, but 70 per cent is Indian. Maybe one per cent of this country is unmixed – and that’s the super-elite – but there are no “Whites” here; it’s a fantasy.’

Semantically, Monsiváis may be right. In reality, however, a privileged class of Mexicans does exist, the members of which clearly see themselves as ‘White’. Known as criollos (people of ‘pure’ Spanish descent born in Mexico, and sometimes referred to as ‘the Thousand Families’) they are disdainful of indígenas and indigenous culture in general.

Writer and social critic Paco Ignacio Taibo is scathing about the advertising industry in Mexico and the political system that ideologically endorses their prejudicial behaviour. ‘Advertisers produce these racist images because that’s the image they have of this society; that’s the mirror in which they see themselves. What you can link to this [Vicente] Fox government is that all these guys would actually like to live in an ugly city like Indianapolis, or Austin Texas – or Kansas City, which is even worse! That’s the city they would like to see here; that’s the city of their dreams. And so when they get into advertising they produce this nowhere-land, Alice in Wonderland, white, slimy middle-class world.’

Mexican racism is not akin to that seen in apartheid-era South Africa, the southern US states, or even in certain parts of western and eastern Europe today: there are no official policies of segregation and discrimination; you will not find gangs of neo-Nazi skinheads wandering the streets. Rather, Mexican racism has become so ingrained in the culture, in ‘the way things are’, that it has become almost invisible.

Jorge Lestrade, the editor of WOW explains: ‘It’s the way it occurs here. It’s ghostly. Sometimes it appears and sometimes it hides. It’s not like a consistent attitude – but there is a perfect space here for it to occur. Also, Mexican racism is so mixed with classism that you have difficulty separating them and analysing racism in isolation. If you can actually see racism anywhere, you can see it in the advertising. Another problem,’ says Lestrade, ‘is that people do not want to talk about it. They still read “racism” in terms of “South Africa”, or “Afro-racism”, or “Hitler against the Jews” – not as a problem that we have here, today. The government doesn’t talk about it; nobody talks about it.’ Marta Acevedo, the editor of un, dos, tres [one, two, three] – a free publication aimed at indigenous children – points out that even the country’s intellectuals speak with no unified voice on the subject of racism. They seem unable to agree on whether or not it even occurs in Mexico, and generally remain silent about it.

In the nineteenth century, the renowned German statesman and traveller Alexander von Humboldt famously noted, ‘Mexico is the country of inequality.’ In no other place he had visited, he professed, had he seen such an appallingly unequal distribution of wealth. These observations were made before Mexico’s tumultuous Revolution (1910-17), which was supposed to change all that. It did not. As recently as two years ago, the Population Council – which surveys and advises on population-related issues around the world – reported that, ‘[Mexico] is a country marked by social, economic, ethnic and gender inequality. [. . .] The extremes of poverty and opulence are contrasts that are constantly present in daily life.

Although Mexico is the world’s thirteenth largest trading nation, poverty has actually increased there over the past two decades. Today it is reliably estimated that out of a total 100 million Mexicans, 40 million live in poverty, while another 25 million live in extreme poverty. There are also thought to be about another ten million people who, although not officially classed as ‘poor’, daily experience great material hardship. Furthermore, as Julio Boltvinik, a sociologist at the Colegio de México, and a leading expert on poverty, points out: of the 75 million poor in Mexico today, 54 million are indígenas.

With the minimum wage set at 45 pesos per day for a 48-hour week (about £2.50), and with the poorest 65 per cent living on between less than one minimum salary and three minimum salaries, supermarkets and department stores have become the sole domain of the well-off. The vast majority of the population does its shopping at markets and on street stalls. Paco Ignacio Taibo believes that this informal economy is extremely important for the survival of the system. ‘It’s a freak world in which you find everything: copies of things, stolen things, junk products, contraband, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It’s covering the whole city! And without this informal economy – this “release valve”– the country would have collapsed a long time ago.’

Rife and unremitting poverty, then, is the first of the specific social ‘challenges’ faced by Mexico’s advertising industry. As Taibo sees it, the tenacity of the informal economy, and the heightened polarisation between the very rich and the struggling, has led advertising to become increasingly ‘aggressive’ in order to catch people – most of whom simply cannot be called ‘consumers,’ at least not in the sense that economically developed countries understand the word. This aggression is evident not only in the rigid, repetitive stereotypes, but in the size and volume of adverts too. Regulations about billboards and public advertising are non-existent in Mexico; anyone can construct a hoarding of anysize atop their building and then rent it out to the advertising agencies. New printing techniques also mean that whole buildings can be shrouded in giant canvas commercials, and these monster ads are now smeared all over Mexico City.

A deep-rooted preoccupation with skin colour and ethnic background is the second of the regional ‘challenges’ faced by the advertising industry in Mexico. Although differentiation along colour lines existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica – with lighter-skinned people being seen as closer to the Gods – the practice was exacerbated by the Spanish conquerors, as well as by the insidious racial caste system that was put in place in ‘Nueva España’ (‘new Spain’) by the criollos once they, Spaniards, indigenous peoples and imported African slaves, began to mix and procreate.

As we have seen, the word ‘indígenas’ is officially reserved for those who speak their own native languages, or for those who do not, but whose ‘physical and cultural characteristics are aboriginal’. More commonly, the word ‘morenos’ (literally ‘Browns’ – which is not considered particularly offensive in Mexico) is used to talk about darker people, whether they are indígenas or not. A more derogatory name for anyone with indigenous blood, however, is ‘naco’. Derived from the legitimate name of the ‘totonac’ Indians, ‘naco’ entered the vocabulary as slang in the 1950s, but is now common parlance. In an essay first published in 1988, Carlos Monsiváis writes, ‘The term [“naco”] goes beyond socio-economic identification (before it was said, “he may have a lot of money but he’s still basically a peasant”; now it has become, “he may have millions but he’ll always be a naco”), violently alluding to the most marginalised of the nation. [. . .] Outside the culture industry, [the naco] is never the centre of any spectacle. He is definitively proscribed, especially in advertising, because he contaminates; and his physical, social or cultural presence causes (if it causes anything at all) either horror or pity – both feelings of moral superiority – among the ruling classes.’

Had the social position and image of the Indians – the ‘nacos’ – improved in recent years, I asked Monsiváis? ‘No, not at all,’ he told me. ‘Without money in this society, your colour is your outstanding feature. A lot of money can give your features a face. With money, you are a “successful naco” – and the accent is on “successful”. Without money you are a just a “naco”, and you are seen as an example of the failure of the Indian people. And you should never forget that in Mexico the worst thing you can call someone is still “pinche indio” – “fucking Indian”.’

When we turn to the panoply of advertising images, magazine covers, popular television images, health promotion material, financial advice literature, product packaging, etc. – all of which floats before the Mexican people, and which they float through – we clearly see reflected there the untouchability of the indígenas, the morenos, the nacos. Despite the best efforts of the ‘National Indigenous Institute’ and similar watchdog organisations set up to protect the rights of the officially indigenous, the real fact is that ‘White is in’, and ‘Brown . . .’ – let alone ‘Black . . .’ (unless it’s the testosterone-charged, African-American, sexy black that is not unknown in Mexican advertising) – ‘is out’. Monsiváis observes that Mexico, taking its cue from the US, may be getting used to the idea that ‘Black is Beautiful’, but that it has a long way to go before accepting that ‘Brown is Beautiful’. Nearly two hundred years after Independence and 80 years after the end of the Revolution, ‘we still have no representation of Indian beauty here,’ he says.

Large foreign advertising companies are buying up smaller Mexican ones left, right and centre. These conglomerates have absolutely no interest in local culture or people, except as latter-day ‘vassals’ – to be made as dependent as possible on whatever goods the agencies are peddling. Rather, these foreign agencies are at the beck and call of powerful multinationals, and seem so terrified of losing million-dollar accounts to rival agencies that one gets the impression they would do just about anything, however distasteful, to remain in their clients’ good books.

Carl Jones, a Welshman who grew up in Canada and moved to Mexico nine years ago after assessing it as a country with exceptional market growth potential, is one of the new breeds of expatriate creative directors. As vice-president of the local office of international advertising agency BBDO, he is also something of an exception to the rule.

On the day I arrived to see him, Mr Jones was still in a meeting. While waiting for him, I had the opportunity to take a close look at ‘THE BBDO BELIEFS’. From among this copious list of framed corporate beliefs I gleaned that, ‘Advertising must treat consumers with intelligence and sensitivity’, and that, ‘Advertising should be a positive experience for its audience.’ Since there was not one word that specifically related to Mexico I can only assume that the same set of ‘BELIEFS’ hangs worldwide in all BBDO receptions. And herein lies one of the biggest problems with the international advertising industry: the uniformity of business ideology and approach across multifarious countries and cultures.

Carl Jones is clearly torn between the most self-righteous of BBDO’s beliefs, and the harsh, practical requirements of ‘producing the most effective communication of the strategic positioning of the brand’, in a country characterised by mass poverty and colour and economic prejudice. When he first came to Mexico, he refused to help a well known multinational promote a skin-bleaching product they were attempting to launch on to the market. Plus, on at least two occasions – but not without something of a struggle – he has managed to successfully incorporate Mexican sayings, cultural motifs and themes into his commercials, and this is something he intends to do more of in the future. Jones is also fully aware of racism in Mexican advertising, and has come out publicly about the issue on a previous occasion.

When it comes to getting more morenos into his ads, however, Jones admits he is fighting a losing battle. In fact, in his whole nine years in Mexico he can remember only one client (himself moreno) who actually insisted on putting darker-skinned people into his company’s commercials. The rest of Jones’s time in Mexico, however, seems, by his own admission and against his wishes, to have been spent pandering to the business community’s innate reactionary tendencies.

‘Everything is done under the table in Mexico. But I’ve lived here long enough to know the language. They use the expression “Latino Internationale”– “Latin American International” – which means dark hair, dark eyes, and a light skin; and that’s Argentinian, or Mexican with predominantly Spanish blood. Either that or they fly models in from Europe or North America. What I do is I say I want more morenos in my castings, as well as the Argentinians, so that we get that mix. But when I show that to the client, at the end of the day they’ll sway more toward the lighter-skinned, “Latin American International” look – which means white people. So the people in the ads can look “Latino”, but at the same time must be more . . . er . . . “Aspirational”.’

‘Aspirational’ is a word ad men everywhere use a lot, and Carl Jones is no exception. In racially and economically divided, developing countries like Mexico, ‘aspirational’ is a convenient euphemism for something much more unpleasant-sounding. In advertising, mixed with a combination of race and class stereotypes, it implies that there really is something ‘better’, ‘more acceptable’ and ‘generally superior’ about being white. Aspirationalism robs those who are least able to defend themselves of their most important asset: their cultural and social legitimacy. It lowers self-esteem among those at the economic bottom, and in doing so helps keep the lid on real aspirations, inhibiting real social mobility.

In Nueva España, the notion developed that by interbreeding with people of a lighter complexion – those with more Spanish blood – the lower castes could enable their offspring to move up one colour and social notch, to transcend their parents’ caste and all the related hardship and humiliation. And as I sat and listened to Carl Jones spell out the principles behind race and class aspiration in Mexican advertising, it seemed to me that here was the contemporary equivalent of the pernicious colonial concept of colour dilution and cast mobility. In the latter-day version all you have to do is ‘Spend!’ You don’t need to spend much either; even the price of a packet of potato crisps will do the trick!

In the morally hazy world of the Mexican marketing industry, aspirationalism – as defined by Carl Jones – goes like this. ‘Because the people with money are usually light-skinned, the association is that if you have light skin then you have money. And in advertising people want to aspire to the upper classes, so that’s why in commercials you’ll be showing lighter-skinned people, because you’re showing a lifestyle that’s aspirational; even for something like potato chips. Even though so many people are poor in Mexico, and most of the people who buy potato chips are poor, what you reflect in your commercials are people who are upper middle-class – who have a nice home, nice surroundings, and have that “Latin American International” look I was telling you about. You’re just trying to give those potato chips a better image.’

What fails to come across in Jones’s explication is that it takes a Mexican worker on a minimum wage nearly two hours to earn the price of a litre of milk; one hour for a small packet of potato chips. If that worker were British, working for Britain’s minimum wage, the equivalent price of a litre of milk would be nearly £9, the potato chips £4.50. It takes quite a lot to get people to part with £13.50 for a carton of milk and a packet of chips; simply wanting such ‘luxury items’ is not enough – people need to aspire to them. Aspirationalism is a hard-sell strategy, and it does not come much harder, or more objectionable, than in Mexico.

Founded nearly half a century ago by the father of its current President, Publicidad Ferrer is a highly respected Mexican advertising agency. Juan Cristóbal Ferrer and his Vice President, Creative Director Enrique Staines Cicero, are proud of their company’s Mexican-ness; they are also utterly sick of the imposition, on Mexico, of US and European cultural stereotypes. ‘At Publicidad Ferrer it’s a daily fight to try to make advertising more faithful to our Mexican way of life,’ says Ferrer. ‘Meanwhile, the big companies are fighting to make their products more “global”.’

Industrially, Mexico developed rapidly after the end of the World War II, when large US manufacturing and automobile corporations moved into the country in strength. They brought their own ad agencies with them; and they in turn imported their tried-and-tested creative ideas and marketing strategies. And so, on different soil, they just carried on doing what they had always done – right down to the same preference for occidental faces and American cultural stereotypes. Even today, says Ferrer, ‘if you go to Darcy in New York or Darcy here, the way they do advertising is exactly the same. [. . .] They do not understand, or they do not want to see, that the Mexican population is completely different – with another way of living, and thinking, and feeling. They are not willing to adapt the message of their ads to our culture.’

At the end of the day, says Staines, it all comes down to a matter of choice – or rather the lack of choice, both historically and now. ‘When the Spanish came, the population in this country could not choose . . . and that lack of choice is still reverberating through the society today. The opportunity to study, to raise a family, with their own house, and their own car – they simply do not have the choice. And, in the same way, they do not have the choice to influence the advertising they see, because nobody asks them whether they like it or not. And in the history of this country I don’t think there has been one government that has wanted to change this overall situation – because that lack of choice is how they control the population.’

A Mexican friend told me a story about her eight-year-old niece. One day this [dark-skinned] child was looking through one of her aunt’s fashion magazines. Coming across a picture of a small blonde girl, she paused and said, ‘Aunty, I wish I had been born in the USA.’ When asked ‘Why?’ the little girl pointed to the picture and said, ‘because then I would be like her. White! She’s so pretty!’

I put it to Carl Jones that even supposing people didn’t find the aspirational, racial marketing approach offensive, should that excuse international agencies – which in their home countries publicly endorse the ethics of multiracial advertising – from upholding the same progressive standards in countries where there are no written rules to guide them? Jones has strong views about corporate interference in social mores, as he sees it, and he baulks at the idea of putting more pressure on the clients. ‘It’s not our job to make moral judgments. This is a business. Advertising reflects the society. It doesn’t influence, it reflects. And I don’t think it’s fair for American- and British-owned agencies to be imposing their values on other countries.’

Enrique Staines profoundly disagrees with Carl Jones’s laissez-faire attitude towards advertising practices, as well as with his assertion that advertising only ‘reflects’. ‘We have to study what kind of impact this [racist] advertising is having, and what kind of hate is growing from it,’ says Staines. ‘Because this type of advertising is generating hate – and that, for tomorrow, is a big social problem.’

Another constant in Mexican advertising is that of ‘beauty’, and the fact that everyone has to be very ‘beautiful’ – as well as white and rich. This is something else that frustrates Carl Jones about working in Mexico. He is a great admirer of British advertising, where the use of people who might be described as ‘ordinary-looking’ is commonplace. ‘I want to use “characters”, he says, ‘but the client always chooses the model type.’

Contempo Models, founded by former child model Oscar Medrazo fourteen years ago, is Mexico’s busiest agency, with around 500 girls from all over Latin America on its books. The right kinds of blonde and ‘Latin American International’ looks were scaling Oscar’s office walls, from floor to ceiling, in racks of large, very seductive glossy cards. I asked him which of the girls were Mexican, and as quick as a punchcard sorting machine he jumped up and sifted them out for me.

There seemed to me to be little to differentiate the Mexican girls from all the other girls on Oscar’s walls – girls from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, etc. Not wishing to offend, however, I simply commented that the pile of girls he had just handed me were a pretty great-looking bunch. ‘Yes,’ he retorted, ‘you’d never think they were Mexican, would you?’ My surprise must have showed, for he quickly added, ‘Er . . . I mean . . . if you go to the United States or Europe, not everyone would look like a model there either, right?’ ‘Yes, right,’ I granted him. But didn’t he think that in Mexico, in terms of colour, build and stature (since Mexicans are often quite short), there is such a disparity between the models and the way most people actually look, that these stereotypes are just completely out of reach? Didn’t he think that this inconsistency could be causing major dissatisfaction, not to mention fuelling social divisions?

‘Of course there are always gonna be people who are frustrated – people who say: “Oh, I wanna look more like a model! Even if I try really hard I’m never gonna look like that!” Medrazo tells me. ‘Look at Asian people. They’re always gonna look “Asian”, right? But they just wanna look more American or European. It’s like a Revolution! They change their hair; they wear extravagant clothes; they use make-up. They use a lot of things to look different. Black people too. They straighten their hair. Michael Jackson dyes his skin. You know what I mean? People just wanna feel comfortable with themselves anywhere in the world. And that’s “Aspiration”. If you don’t have aspirations in life,’ he concluded, ‘what do you have? Right?’

Advertisers are adept at justifying the images they create. Curiously, too, they always seem to take credit for the increased product demand their ads generate, but shift responsibility for the chauvinistic elements in their work on to others. Those are the fault of their bigoted, narrow-minded clients, they say; they would love to be more inclusive, they say, but their dictatorial clients just won’t let them, damn it! They speak as if they would have no choice about what they do. Given the real pressure their powerful clients often exert on them whenever the ‘Creatives’ do want to take a few risks, this may often be true; but it hardly makes the ad men any less culpable. In Mexico, and in countries like Mexico, the advertising industry has become dangerously complicit with a system that denies opportunity to many, while simultaneously conferring ‘unearned advantage and conferred dominance’ upon others. If designers, art directors and their media colleagues are the ‘gatekeepers of a country’s self-image’, as has often been said, judged by their collective oeuvre, rather than the genuinely well intentioned words of a few conscientious individuals, the majority of them seem at best to be sleeping on duty, at worst wilfully participating in the perfidious degradation of the majority of the population.

When, more than 50 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was set down and signed up to by the UN’s founding member countries, no one thought to include an Article specifically relating to the ‘fair and equal representation of all people in media and marketing images,’ or words to that effect. Perhaps if that same Declaration were being thrashed out in today’s image-obsessed world it might occur to someone – who knows. In the absence of any specific decree, however, advertisers and their powerful clients would do well to be mindful of the very first Article in the existing Declaration. ‘All human beings,’ it tells us, ‘are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Advertisers cannot expect to be exempt from such sentiments – sentiments worthy of inclusion in any ad agency’s corporate ‘BELIEFS.’

Daoud Sarhandi, author Evil Doesn’t Live Here (Princeton Architectural Press)

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