Latinos and Advertising

Today, Hispanic marketing is a multibillion dollar industry with advertising agencies spread throughout New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and virtually every other city with a large concentration of Latino populations. As the Latino population in the United States continues to rise the Hispanic marketing industry is poised for even larger gains, and even greater relevancy on the national stage. With an increasingly large target audience of Latinos, marketers have produced ads for products across a multitude of categories using a number of different images and representations.

While these images and representations have been heavily leveraged by the advertising industry, their origins can be traced much further back to the uneven relationship and imperial history between the United States and Latin America. Beginning in the 19th century and peaking after the Spanish American War of 1898 when the United States gained hemispheric power in the area and acquired Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines as colonial bounty, the stage was set for American domination of Latin representations. Even before the Spanish-American War when America began to flex its global-power muscle, Latin America was increasingly defined and represented in terms relative to the American imagination. Latin America has long been referred to as America’s “backyard” and aside from a nod to its geographic proximity, implies American dominance over the region that dates as far back as the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, foreign policy that positioned the US as a father-like patron over Latin America which simultaneously positioned as childlike, unruly, and in need of direction.

Keystone Hayloader

Before ads, these tropes were used in political cartoons, often depicting the Central American isthmus as a sore throat with the United States bearing the profile of Uncle Sam, or as Uncle Sam’s “helping hand” to South America. Other common representations included Uncle Sam reprimanding or seducing Latin America, often embodied as a child or a demure senorita through images that infantilized or feminized the Latin American continent. These images soon transcended into the beginnings of film during the 1900s where the conception of Latinos created in the context of American imperialism became enduring stereotypes over time. With Mexico closest to the U.S geographically and still occupying a prominent place in the American psyche due to the relatively recent end of the Mexican-American war in 1848, Mexicans began to be featured prominently in early Western films. These Mexicans were often cast as the antagonists to the “all-American” cowboys of the Southwest, giving rise to the thieving Mexican bandido archetype in films as early as 1908. As a contrast to the antagonizing bandidos, Mexicans males were also often depicted as lazy, sleepy, and generally ineffectual background characters with little agency other than to be alternately helped or hurt by the film’s cowboy protagonists, depending on the scenario. Women, for their part, were represented as senoritas to be conquered, following stereotypes that feminized Latin America as fertile land for the taking.  The figure of Carmen Miranda, the most important representation of Latin America in the American imagination during the 1940’s, evokes this representation.

United States of Colombia Guiana

Some of the earlier representations of Latinos in advertising were deeply rooted in these stereotypes, most of which were reflections of the narrow scope in which they were still viewed in the United States during the 20th century. One particular stereotype of Latino males that figured prominently in advertising is that of the bandido. The “Mexican bandido” (in)famously appeared in advertising through a campaign for corn chips by Frito-Lay in 1967. The campaign, produced by Foote, Cone, and Belding, featured a cartoon character called the Frito Bandito that was used in both magazine and television ads. The character, a portly, mustached Mexican bandit with an oversized sombrero, accompanied by a pair of pistols and a heavy Spanish accent, attempted to be a throwback to the archetypal Mexican vaqueros, but instead only reinforced criminalistic stereotypes. Also, as Frito-Lay ran this campaign (which became highly successful) on a national scale, it extended a depiction of a specific group of Mexicans on to a country with a culturally diverse mix of a Latinos, furthering limiting the possible representations of Latinos in advertising. The image of the bandido would continue to reappear in different contexts, later by Arrid who used an unclean bandit to market their line of deodorant.

Go Latin

These stereotypical depictions of Latinos in advertising were not just limited to men, but extended on to women as well. Instead of being repeatedly cast as shady, untrustworthy, unkempt bandits, Latinas were often represented as sultry, seductive, fiery temptresses, also tracing their origin to films from the early 1900s. This image also spread onto Latino males as the “Latin lover” representation became a prominent stereotype in contrast to the criminally inclined bandit.

While elements of these early stereotypes still exist in various forms in contemporary advertising, the continued boom of the Latino population caused the value of the U.S Hispanic market to skyrocket, opening the door for the production of Hispanic marketing by Hispanic marketers. This also coincided with television becoming the dominant medium in advertising, as Latino centric ads were previously local endeavors limited to regional radio stations and direct promotions to bodegas in the 50’s. The advent of network television allowed Hispanic marketing to reach a nationwide scale, and paralleled the beginnings of the conceptualization of Hispanics as a singular national community in the eyes of advertisers. Along with the influx of a handful of pioneering advertisers from Cuba who initially struggled to prove the value and existence of the Latino market, the onset of network television helped jumpstart the market as a whole.  The development of Hispanic marketing on network television dates to 1961 when Mexican television entrepreneur Emilio Azcarraga established SIN/SICC (Spanish International Network and Spanish International Communications Corporation) by purchasing television stations in Los Angeles and San Antonio. Azcarraga first tried to secure time from American TV stations in order to import programming from his sizable Televisa TV network in Mexico, but faced likely racially motivated institutional opposition, leading him to purchase the TV stations outright. The purchase was negotiated through a group of business partners because of FCC restrictions barring non-citizens owning more than 20 percent of any U.S TV stations, but despite this, operational control of the stations fell to Azcarraga and Televisa, bringing Latin American programming to Los Angeles and San Antonio. The SIN/SICC conglomerate soon expanded to sixteen stations and was later connected by satellite, giving them a nationwide reach for their programming, as well as their advertisers. By 1982, SIN would claim to reach 90 percent of Latina households, and was later renamed Univision.

The emergence of nationwide Spanish language network television, coupled with the continued growth of  Latino-centric ad agencies, led to the dominance of Spanish language advertising as the dominant medium to reach Latinos, a stereotype that veiled Latinos linguistic diversity.  Spanish TV helped catapulted the value and the vibrancy of the Hispanic market, and helped transform some of its images. These ad agencies, primarily established by immigrants of the Cuban Revolution responding to the increasingly Latino demographics in many American cities, now how had the national platform and audience to exert greater control over Latino representations in advertising. This ushered in the opportunity for the Hispanic marketing industry to reformulate existing conventions about Latinos and position themselves as the “politically correct” voice with which to challenge stereotypes. Despite this, initial advertisements were ethnically targeted to specific groups like Cubans, Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans due to pressure from Anglo corporate clients involved in the ads’ production. These clients emphasized “proof” of authenticity from these ads, causing Hispanic marketers to use overt signifiers like clothing, music, and food to indicate which Latino groups their ads were directed towards. This ethnicized strategy constrained the range of Latino representations as they were depicted as distinct from the general market of mainstream America. Over time, this strategy gave way to one focusing on values that would be more intangible, but still cause similar constraints on Latino representations.

These reformed images and values  were central to the industry’s representation of Hispanics.  Among these values are ‘nationalism’, nostalgia for a past left behind, ethnic pride and most importantly, the family. A 1984 Budweiser campaign still catering to distinct Latino groups featured nearly all of the above, with regional campaigns in New York, Florida, California, and Texas geared towards Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans, respectively. The ads featured specific cultural markers, like salsa music in an urban setting in the ad directed at New York Puerto Ricans, that also emphasized nationalistic and nostalgic sentiments in familial settings.

Carlos learns the art of the awesome tortilla.

The concept of the Latino family was featured frequently in advertisements due to the supposed greater spirituality, familial orientation, and sense of tradition intrinsic to Hispanics. Because Latinos were positioned as having particularly strong family values in relation to the general market, the Hispanic family became one of the most potent tropes in advertising for representing Latinos due to their presumed nostalgia for the past, and rootlessness over family separation due to immigration. These values have repeatedly manifested themselves into actual images in advertising for the Hispanic market, with characters like the elderly grandmother and the mustached husband becoming recurrent figures. One particular ad that leveraged this trope was the “Got Milk?” ad that ran for the Hispanic market. The commercial presents a grandmother cooking traditional milk-based desserts with the caption: “Have you given your loved ones enough milk today?”

Cuban Pete

While these representations of Latinos are a step forward from the early images limited to criminalistic or hypersexualized caricatures, these “positive” portrayals bring with them their own set of concerns. For one, the values that many Latino images are based on, like family, are intangible ideas that allow advertisements to avoid visual markers that reference a particular group instead of the desired pan-ethnic identity of Latinos as a singular identity. Because of the dominance of national television, and the high cost involved in producing commercials, advertisers pushed for the conception of a homogeneous Hispanic market with the aim of circumventing a multitude of disparate identities like Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Mexican. With this construction of a “Hispanic nation” comes a number of inherent limits on the possibilities for Latino representation. Visually, a generic or pan-Hispanic “look” (often just dark hair and olive skin) becomes the dominant image of Latinos, marginalizing the entire spectrum of physical features present across among Latinos as a whole. The popular strategy of featuring recognizable Latino celebrities (many of whom also looked the part of the “generic” Latino) like Ricardo Montalban also reinforced this image.

The limits on Latino representation extend beyond images and onto the underlying values as well. An emphasis on family may appear benign enough, but actually carry with them a limiting set of implications, such as an absence of individualism or sophistication among Latinos. (The “Got Milk?” ads for the Hispanic market emphasized family because of the fear that Latinos would not get the humor of the ads run for the general market.)

Stereotypes remain a key concern of the Hispanic marketing industry. What makes these stereotypes so troublesome—despite Latino marketers attempts at political correctness— is not just that they reduce complexities to a few limited conventions, but in doing so, they both reflect and engender social hierarchies. Awareness of these dynamics, however, should not deter us from asking what interests are contained in the development of particular images, or why within advertising, certain images are more viable despite their stereotypical foundations. Hispanic images have not been static, but instead have changed in response to its imagined audience. In this way, the changing commercial representation of Latinas evoke not only the changing nature of the U.S Latino identity, but of the interests and politics that affect its development.

Latinos and Advertising