Ban the Bandito!
By Octavio Emilio Nuiry
Madison Avenue takes a more sophisticated approach to Latino stereotypes
The question sounds so simple: Do advertisers today employ fewer Hispanic
stereotypes than their predecessors did? The answer seems easy: Just examine
Spanish- and English-language television and print ads at different time
periods. But such an exercise is fraught with peril, as advertising experts
well know. Hispanic stereotyping in advertising, which some experts claim
still exists, is mysterious to measure. Images of Hispanics vary from good
to garish, depending on such things as whether the ads appear in Spanish-
or English-language media and whether Hispanic talent is in front of and
behind the camera.
Some of the stereotypes about Hispanics have a long, deplorable history
in American media. Others are much more subtle--modern negative portraits
based upon old prejudices. Meanwhile, new stereotypes are appearing. But
one thing is certain. Researchers are nearly clueless as to how to interpret
and eradicate negative images of Latinos in advertising.
An early image, the ruthless Mexican bandito, has been depicted in everything
from movie westerns to an advertising campaign for corn chips.
In 1967 Foote, Cone, and Belding, one of the nation's largest advertising
agencies, created a television and magazine campaign for the Frito-Lay
Corporation that featured a caricature of a fat, mustachioed Mexican bandit
called the "Frito Bandito." The cartoon appeared on television screens
and in magazine ads across the United States. On TV, "Frito," as the character
was known, had a thick Spanish accent, a long handlebar mustache, a huge
sombrero (complete with a bullet hole), and a pair of six-shooters. Magazine
advertisements appeared as bullet-ridden "Wanted" posters, issuing a reward
for the sly Mexican bandito. The print ads warned: "He loves cronchy [sic]
Fritos corn chips so much he'll stop at nothing to get yours. What's more,
he's cunning, clever--and sneaky!"
While "Frito" sold a lot of corn chips, the bandito image sparked a
showdown with the Mexican American community, pitting the burly bandit
and his creators against a rising tide of Latino objection. The Mexican
American Anti-Defamation Committee called for banning the Bandito, charging
that the campaign carried the "racist message" that Mexicans are "sneaky
In the December 22, 1969, issue of Newsweek, a columnist wrote, "Frito-Lay
has been as touchy as a sunburned Chihuahua about its chubby Mexican thief."
William Raspberry, in his Washington Post column, blasted Frito-Lay, saying,
"The point is that the ethnic stereotypes, bad enough no matter who they
depict, are intolerable when they pick on people who are daily victims
of American racism. And if the point had escaped those who created the
Frito Bandito ads, the complaints from Mexican Americans have removed
whatever innocence there may have been."
Due to mounting public pressure, the "bandito" campaign ended in 1970.
Lynn Markley, a spokeswoman for Frito-Lay in Plano, Texas, refused to
talk about the banned bandit, but acknowledged that "We ended the Frito
Bandito [campaign] several years ago--even though it was well received."
Filtered Through Anglo Eyes
Although the Frito Bandito campaign and similarly overt stereotypes ended
in the seventies, the question remains whether negative stereotypes, no
matter how subtle, still exist today.
"I don't know," replied Lisa Navarrete, communications director for
the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). Every year, the NCLR commissions
a report on Latino images on television shows. "We have studied Hispanic
images on television but not in advertising." But, she added, "a subtle
stereotype that worries me is that all Hispanics are immigrants."
That image is prevalent in a radio "contest" from the Lansing, Michigan,
suburb of Holt. As reported by Hispanic Link, in 1994 station WJXQ-FM
staged a Cinco de Mayo "contest" offering listeners their "own personal
Mexican." A legal trailer intones: "Members of the station and their families
are not eligible to own Mexicans--bathing and delousing of Mexicans is
winner's responsibility. Stations assumes no responsibility for infectious
diseases carried by Mexicans."
Fortunately, such offensive stereotyped advertisements (or in-house
promotions, in this case) rarely appear in large ad campaigns today. That's
not because Madison Avenue has suddenly developed a social conscience.
Rather, corporations and advertising agencies have become aware of the
tremendous economic muscle of Hispanic consumers and don't want to offend
the growing Hispanic market.
Already numbering 27 million--about equal to the population of Canada--the
U.S. Hispanic market is growing five times faster than the general U.S.
population and is expected to reach 30 million by the year 2000, surpassing
African Americans as the largest racial minority group. According to U.S.
Census figures, Hispanics, as a consumer group, are younger as an overall
population and spend $240 billion annually.
"Minorities now appear in advertisements for automobiles, computers,
clothing, liquor, and cigarettes, as well as in corporate image advertising,
yet most of these ads are found in Latino media," said Lisa Peñaloza,
an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
But there is a dilemma, argues Peñaloza. "Latinos are invisible
in general-interest media yet appear in rich, luxurious images in Latino
media." Pen~aloza and other experts claim that mainstream advertisers
still portray a distorted view of Latinos in America. In the general-interest
advertising world, Hispanics appear as hired help, disadvantaged children,
or as tokenistic members of a group in corporate message ads.
Félix Gutiérrez and Clint Wilson II, in their groundbreaking
1985 book Minorities and Media, write, "Advertisers in the U.S. have reflected
the place of minorities in the social fabric of the nation by either ignoring
them or, when they have been included in advertisements for the mass media
audience, by processing and presenting them so as to make them palatable
salespersons for the products being advertised. Advertising images, they
conclude, rather than showing minorities as they really were, portrayed
minorities as filtered through Anglos' eyes."
From Bandito to Urban Gangster
In the sixties and seventies, ads were lily-white, and when Hispanics appeared
they were usually stereotyped. But two decades ago, advertisers began to
realize that there were new consumers out there who weren't being reached
by commercials. By the seventies, the fun-loving Latin lover stereotype
of film and television, who tangoed with señoritas or tamed bulls,
had begun his transformation into today's vicious urban gangster, proclaims
Clara E. Rodríguez, a sociology professor at Fordham University in
New York City. This blend of old stereotypes and cliche`s and new imagery,
Rodríguez argues, is creating a homogeneous Hispanic scripted to
serve the advertiser's needs. "Hispanic stereotypes still exist, but they
have been transformed into an urban context," said Rodríguez. "The
stereotype in film is changing from a rural bandito to an urban drug dealer."
James Turk, vice president of programs at the Balch Institute for Ethnic
Studies in Philadelphia, agrees that Hispanic advertising is going through
a "metamorphosis." Today some ads--created by Hispanic-run agencies--depict
Hispanics for Hispanic audiences. Then there are ads that try to be all
things to all races, as in Bill Cosby surrounded by a United Nations of
children eating Jell-O pudding. But there are still ads that raise eyebrows.
Taco Bell, a division of PepsiCo, urges Anglo taco lovers to "Run for the
Border." How is a Mexican American supposed to interpret Taco Bell's corporate
slogan? Are these allusions realistic portrayals of Hispanics or throwbacks
to the bad old days of Frito Bandito?
"Perhaps in a medium in which everything is reduced to sound bites and
fifteen-second spots, stereotypes are inevitable," concluded Marye C.
Tharp, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Texas
"Creators of Hispanic stereotypes employ a variety of means to make
their points," added Gail Stern, director of the Historical Society of
Princeton. "Accented English, clothing, caricatures, hairstyles, mannerisms--all
have been employed by advertisers to amuse Anglo consumers, grab their
attention, or play on their prejudices."
For decades, crude and condescending images of Hispanics appeared in
newsprint, radio, and TV advertisements. Generally, Hispanic images in
advertising were oversimplifications of Latinos without consideration
of individual differences. Later, advertisers softened--and some even
retired--images because of complaints from Hispanic groups.
Luis Reyes, author of The Mask of Zorro: Mexican Americans in Popular
Media, points out that four common Hispanic stereotypes: the bandit, the
Latin lover, the Latina spitfire, and the sweet sen~orita. Besides the
Mexican bandit stereotype, a second advertising myth romanticized Latina
women, who appeared as Spanish spitfires. These two myths, however, are
notoriously inconsistent. The bandit image still appears in western movies
and on network television, whlie the spitfire myth has invaded your kitchen.
Chiquita Banana: Sexy Señorita
Today's Chiquita Banana, formerly part of Boston-based United Fruit Company,
entices consumers in a different way than did the Frito Bandito or any other
Hispanic male stereotype. Wearing a fruit-laden hat, a la Carmen Miranda,
a ruffled skirt, and high heels, Chiquita embodied the stereotypical, fun-loving
In the sixties, Chiquita Banana aired television ads showing an overtly
sexual figure dancing the rumba and singing her famous "I'm Chiquita Banana"
jingle complete with a heavily Spanish accent. Even the ubiquitous blue
and yellow Chiquita sticker--placed on countless bananas in local grocery
stores--still carries the fruit headdress and gaudy costumes worn by Carmen
Facing ever-increasing competition for Hispanic consumers, advertisers
are spending more and becoming more sophisticated. Only a few years ago,
most advertisers merely translated ads into Spanish. Now increasing numbers
are creating ads especially designed for the Hispanic audience--with a
separate ad strategy to match.
"There was a time when advertisers would run English-language ads dubbed
in Spanish. Back then, you would see English-speaking actors on Spanish-language
television. Today, you see Hispanics interacting with Hispanics," said
Gregg Cebrzynski, managing editor of Marketing News.
Nowadays Hispanic celebrities reign in Spanish-language TV commercials,
selling everything from nachos to Nissans. Cristina Saralegui, a popular
Univision talk show host, pitches long distance telephone services for
AT&T. Comedian Paul Rodriguez pitches Pepsi. Mexican boxing champ Julio
César Chávez hawks Coors Beer. Boxer Oscar de la Hoya sells
deodorant. Even public service announcements use Rita Moreno and Edward
James Olmos to urge Hispanics to register and vote and Jimmy Smits sings
the praises of mentoring. This formula has been successful and offers
the advantage of replacing the offensive images of the past with a more
The impetus to cast Hispanics in leading roles in Spanish-language TV
commercials comes from a new understanding among advertisers that Hispanics
and non-Hispanics can not be reach by the same ads.
But not all stereotyping is negative, claims advertising professor Tharp.
"Asians, for example, are thought of as the 'model minority' because they
are all perceived to be good in math and science. Not all Asian students,
however, are good in math."
In the early years, Hispanics were usually portrayed in crude and condescending
images that catered to popular prejudices, but outraged the Hispanic community,
which boycotted the products, forcing advertisers to either sanitize or
end stereotypical portrayals of Hispanics.
In the seventies and eighties, advertisers softened the images because
of complaints from Hispanic groups and the growing sophistication of the
advertising community. During this period, Madison Avenue made a pivotal
strategic shift, featuring Hispanics in English-language mainstream television
spots for the first time. Many beer commercials highlighted Hispanic sports
figures and other personalities as spokesmen.
Don't Drink the Water
One ad for Miller Lite, for example, showed former welterweight boxing champion
Carlos Palomino sitting in a bar with friends. Palomino says in the ad,
"The best thing about coming to America was that I got to try American beers.
And the one I like best is Lite Beer." The spot utilized the memorable punch
line in a reversal of the "Moctezuma's Revenge" concept: "Drink Miller Lite,
but don't drink the water." Miller's ad, many experts agree, was one of
the best crossover commercials. It appealed both to Hispanic and general
Soon, Hispanic images in ads began to grow. Actor Ricardo Montalban
got into the spokesperson business hawking cars and watches. Montalban
extolled the virtues of the Chrysler Cordoba's rich "Corinthian leather"
on general market TV and also pitched watches on Spanish-language TV.
Advertisers even began running Spanish-language ads on network TV. PepsiCo's
Chayanne ads on CBS during the 1989 Grammy Awards marked the first time
a Spanish-only ad aired on a mainstream network television.
But the nineties marked a "new foray" for Hispanic advertising, according
to Cebrzynski. For the first time, advertisers are producing Spanish-language
commercials in which Hispanics are interacting with non-Hispanics. In
a new Anheuser-Busch commercial, a Latino defensive football player heads
the football soccer style. The ads focuses on the theme of U.S. Hispanics
interacting with mainstream Americans.
Still, Hispanics have yet to break into general media ad portrayals
the way African Americans have done in the past decade, but hot prime
time stars like Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, and Cheech Marin may help
pave the way.
Far from dead, Hispanic images have been an integral part of American
advertising history. Although market-driven advertising has cleaned up
its historical depictions of Latinos, the new stereotypes continue to