Mexico, Coca Cola, Hipsters Ads and the Indigenous
sinembargo: Alejandro Calvillo*
Translated by Emma Brooks and
The reaction to the commercial made by Coca Cola in the Mixe community of Totontepec, Oaxaca, presents an important opportunity to reflect as a society on the treatment of indigenous communities in our country, through advertising and concerning the exploitation of situations of marginalization and of emotions, to persuade the population to consume a product.
For a society that is deeply discriminatory of its indigenous population, like Mexico, it is difficult to recognize the actions that perpetuate stereotypes of subordination, stereotypes that place one race or culture above another, as a model. This is even more serious in advertising. It’s enough just to look at the racial profile of people used in advertising in Mexico – in practice, there is no place in advertising for the people who make up the majority of Mexico’s population by far – mestizos. Their presence is only marginal.
In a society of hyper-consumption, which is the source of the global environmental and social crisis we are experiencing, advertising ceases to demonstrate how a product or service can fill a need. What advertising sells in a society of hyper-consumption are ideas, feelings, aspirations. When the goal is to create necessities, and those necessities don’t satisfy a need in our lives, advertising instead focuses on offering emotions and feelings of belonging.
When we review advertisements for a product, it is just as important to analyse how they achieve persuasion, what strategies they follow to entice consumers to buy and consume the product, as it is to analyse the product that is being advertised, and its effect on the consumer, on their community and on their environment.
Coca Cola’s advertisements are a good example of advertising for a product that has no intrinsic value. That is to say, Coca Cola is a product that can’t offer anything more than hydration, something that water is better at providing, without the health complications and habits that can result from soft drink consumption. So, what Coca Cola really sells are feelings (happiness, love, solidarity) but, especially, a sense of belonging. A key element of this product’s success is its addictive nature, provided by high amounts of sugar and probably some other ingredient in its secret formula.
Advertising for this beverage focuses on youth, a strategic sector. Young people, as part of their development, have an intense need to belong. These products sell them that feeling, the illusion of belonging to a world of happiness, of being “cool”, of being part of something that, in most cases, is merely a sensation.
In the commercial made in the indigenous community in Oaxaca, there is a clear model of who brings happiness to the village, and how they bring that happiness. In social networks, they have been described as “urban hipsters”; this is also how they have been defined by the international news agency Al Jazeera, Telesur and in social networks.
“Hipster” has different definitions, but the one that is most fitting for the characters in this commercial is Victor Lenore’s in Indies, hipsters and gafapastas. Lenore defines them as part of a subculture that appears to be countercultural but defends individualism, competition, and that deep down is nothing more than a more ruthless and snobby form of contemporary capitalism. There are other definitions that wouldn’t fit the characters in this commercial as well, but Victor Lenore’s is appropriate for the models and clothing selected for the commercial, and the image that the advertising agency and the scriptwriters who made the commercial try to communicate.
The commercial portrays these youth totally racially different from the youth in the community. And the difference isn’t only racial, it’s also in the meeting of different social sectors in a country where social classes are divided and deeply marked by racial differences. Furthermore, it’s in the fact that some characters bring happiness to the community by bringing Coca Cola and a Christmas tree, and others only receive it, expressing nothing more than smiles. Some characters are active, and the others passive, some bring happiness, Coca Cola and a Christmas tree, and the others simply receive them, smile, let themselves be pampered, and hug the “urban hipsters”.
The soft drink company in this commercial sells happiness as synonymous with Coca Cola, and moreover, according to the company: solidarity with indigenous peoples. Apart from watching the commercial, it is important to describe it in order to understand it. When faced with criticism for this commercial, Coca Cola announced its removal from networks. The Alliance for Healthy Food created a version that preserves the commercial in its entirety, but with added statements from indigenous Mixe youth:
Coca Cola’s advertisement starts with images of an older man and woman, and a few indigenous youth, all with serious expressions, not smiling, and the superimposed text appears: “81.6% of indigenous Mexicans have felt rejected for speaking another language”. This statistic is tragic without a doubt – that the indigenous population feels rejected for speaking their own language, which means being rejected for their culture, as language is one of the deepest forms of culture. But then there is an abrupt change; cheerful music comes on, and images of young people with white skin appear, laughing, playing in a workshop, having fun while they cut wood and paint it red. These images stand out, and contrast starkly with the first images of the adults and indigenous youth, both racially and emotionally; the light-skinned urban youth are cheerful, they are happy. On top of these scenes in the workshop appears the writing: “This Christmas, a group of young people wanted to give them a very special message”.
What follows are the images of three young people we’ve seen in the shop, who pass through the mountains on a truck, overflowing with happiness. The sign on the road marks the entrance to “Totontepec,” and superimposed on the announcement is “Mixe Community, Oaxaca, Mexico.” Hands are seen waving as they enter the town, as if welcoming them. The three traveling in the truck become a score of young people with the same racial characteristics and clothing, who go down the streets of the town bringing happiness and Coca-Cola. You see the image of a pair of indigenous youngsters smiling, watching the young people running through the streets of their town.
These young people who have come to the town with happiness and Coca-Cola build a Christmas tree out of lumber, several meters high, while the indigenous young people observe them. In the following scene, they hand Coca-Cola to the young people in the village and hug them. For the first time in the ad, the indigenous young people act – they are the ones turn on the lights on the tree. The action consists in turning, as if threading, Coca-Cola bottle caps found between the boards the Christmas tree is built from. As it’s turned, each cap lights up. Each light-cap has the Coca-Cola logo.
The white-skinned young people from the city give high-fives, hug and look at and patronizingly hug the indigenous young people, with friendliness and a sense of superiority over them. The ad ends with the image of the tall Christmas tree which has the Mixe phrase meaning “Stand together.”
This short description shows the sequences of the ad. The ad uses a serious situation for the indigenous population – rejection for speaking an indigenous language. It tries to create a feeling of compassion over the rejection the indigenous population suffers and aims to break a prejudice. Nevertheless, the ad deepens this prejudice, this discrimination, this racism by clearly making the indigenous people passive in their own community, lacking in happiness which must come from outside, which comes from consuming a beverage and having the urban youth make a Christmas tree that’s not part of their tradition. The urban young people’s condescending attitude, in the negative sense of the term, towards the indigenous people, with this character of superiority, reproduces racist stereotypes of subordination.
There are some who say the company made the ad with the consent of the authorities in the community, as a way of justifying it. But the responsibility does not belong to the community authorities. It belongs to the company who made an ad and distributed it across social networks throughout the country and the world. That is to say, it’s an ad that sends a message which establishes an image of indigenous submission and reproduces stereotypes. The responsibility is with the business and also with the State, which should prevent and avoid discrimination.
The second essential piece for evaluating this ad, apart from its strategy and contents, is the product it advertises and the relationship that product has with indigenous communities in our country. We must start from the fact that regularly consuming these drinks does damage and raises the risk of being overweight, obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.
Indigenous communities suffer for more than their languages. They suffer from extreme poverty, lack of water services, education, health and more. In health, they suffer the same epidemic of obesity and diabetes as the rest of the population of the country. The difference is insignificant. It must be remembered that we Mexicans have one of the highest rates of these afflictions. Adequate attention to prevent diabetes in non-existent in these communities, and when it is diagnosed it is already well-advanced. We have seen this in people who have amputations or are blind, dying in need of dialysis they can’t pay for and the public health system won’t cover.
One of the factors that contributes significantly to this illness is the high sugar content consumed in soft drinks. Type 2 diabetes barely existed 30-40 years ago in indigenous communities, and it has now become an epidemic. In this sense, the drink represents a higher threat for the indigenous population than for the rest of the country, as much for a higher predisposition to diabetes as because a large part of this population has suffered some degree of malnutrition since a young age, as well as for an increased genetic predisposition.
In this context, it’s clear Coca-Cola uses and approves a condition of discrimination to present itself falsely as a business interested in fighting the prejudices that discriminate against indigenous communities. It uses the situation of discrimination to sell its product, which affects the health of indigenous people. Not only does it not fight discrimination, as it claims to do – it promotes reproducing stereotypes by projecting an image of subordination and making the community an object for the condescending attitudes of the urban young people who bring the community happiness, Coca-Cola and a Christmas tree, as well as promoting a product whose consumption increases the health problems that have catastrophic costs for families and communities.
It’s very easy for Coca-Cola to declare it is against discrimination against indigenous people and do so in word, but it is actions that generate discrimination. This, paradoxically, is what the soda company is doing through this ad.
To give a clearer idea of the irresponsibility and disregard soda companies have for communities, I recommend the book edited by Dr. Gian Carlo Delgado: Apropiación de agua, medio ambiente y obesidad. Los impactos del negocio de bebidas embotelladas en México [Ownership of water, environment and obesity: The impacts of bottled drinks business in Mexico], published by the UNAM. Download or view the book [in Spanish] here.
*Alejandro Calvillo is director of Consumer Power, a member of Consumers International and of the Advisory Council to PROFECO, the Federal Prosecutor for Consumers.
MV Note: Drinking soft drinks is habitual in 80% of Mexicans and 38% of them admit that they drink soft drinks daily or at least five to six times a week. Mexico is the largest consumer of these drinks in the world: 163 liters [172 quarts] per person per year. Coca Cola is the biggest seller, with 47.7% of market share. Pepsi has 15.1%.