SAN DIEGO – I’ve always considered myself an authentic representative of that hip and exciting brand: American Latino. I’ve taken all the courses, passed all the tests, and obtained the necessary credentials. Then again, I don’t have a tattoo on my neck.
So does this mean that, according to Coca-Cola, I’m not the real thing?
Recently, the multinational soft drink company marked the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) by releasing a short film that was supposed to be inspiring but wound up being insulting.
The spot – produced by “David The Agency,” which is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with an office in Miami – is titled: “Orgulloso De Ser” (Proud to Be). It begins with a bright red Coca-Cola truck maneuvering through the streets of Los Angeles handing out free samples of the soft drink.
Stop the tape! Those of you whose knowledge of the nation’s 54 million Latinos extends beyond margaritas and mariachis may be thinking that hiring an ad agency based in South America to produce an ad campaign centered in Southern California is not such a bright idea. Hold that thought.
Latinos may share the same language and culture, but they often come from completely different worlds. And that’s just within the United States, let alone what happens when you bring in people from below the equator. Mixing them together, and treating them as if they’re interchangeable, is not how you teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
At the beginning of the clip, a woman asks what it means to be Latino. A man answers: “There’s a sense of pride that I don’t think any other culture has.”
That Latinos are a proud people is not exactly news. Mexico’s elites are too proud to acknowledge that, without the more than $20 billion in annual remittances from lowly migrants north of the border, Mexico would go under. And Mexican-Americans are too proud to admit they’re being outworked by Mexican immigrants.
But, as long as we’re talking about pride, I hope Latinos understand the difference between “earned pride” and “cheap pride.” The former you get from working hard and accomplishing something, which millions of Latinos in this country do every single day. The latter comes from some superficial love, respect or attachment we might feel to one thing or another.
Like, say, our family name. You may have noticed that Coke has a marketing gimmick where people’s first names are emblazoned on soda cans. The spot for Hispanic Heritage Month plays on the warmth that Latinos feel for their family by decorating the cans with surnames. And, of course, the ad is careful to showcase some of the most common Latino surnames in the United States – Rodriguez, Martinez, Torres, Gonzalez, etc.
So far so good. For Latinos, the most important institution in their lives is the family. There is nothing wrong with trying to connect with Latino consumers by emphasizing that theme.
Of course, evidence suggests that soda and other sugary drinks are a major cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among Latinos. But as long as a product is legal, a company has the right to market it.
Yet what left a bad taste in my mouth is that what the film is really selling is a stereotype. As Latinos approach the truck to get a free soda, they notice something odd – the names are backward. What they’re really seeing are temporary tattoos that have been personalized with people’s last names and then attached to the cans. The crowd goes along with the gag, finds the cans with their last names, and transfers the tattoos onto their arms, necks and shoulders.
The spectacle brings to mind the sort of thing you see in a police line-up, prison yard, or documentary on the deadly Salvadoran gang, MS-13. Is this what Latinos are supposed to be proud of? After all, not all of them have a taste for body art, and some actually draw more pride from seeing their name on a college diploma.
The special product is not sold in the general market, and the “Heritage Tattoo Cans” were created exclusively for this ad. Which raises the question: Why would anyone even think of such an offensive idea, let alone execute it?
Pride is overrated. If companies like Coca-Cola want to sell products to Latinos, they should start with honesty. And lazily falling back on stereotypes, in order to portray any group of Americans as one-dimensional, is just not honest.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.