Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, all it takes is a few words to disparage an entire population. And just four words frame the glistening bottle of Tecate beer angled phalically erect: “FINALLY, A COLD LATINA.”
The advertisement, displayed on billboards in Latino communities across the country, signals an unprecedented low for the beer industry, which has long exploited images of nearly naked Latin women (Latinas) to sell its products. The billboards unabashedly suggest that Latinas as a group are promiscuous (i.e. “hot”) and hyper sexed. It is chilling in its blatant use of a stereotype that dehumanizes each of us, from Dominican schoolgirls to Mexican-American grandmothers, but it is particularly damaging to our youth, who are exposed to more alcohol advertisements than adults or children of other ethnic groups.
Therefore, America’s Latino communities are demanding that these offensive billboards come down immediately, and that Labatt, USA, distributor of Tecate beer (imported from Mexico), publish and broadly disseminate a formal apology in English- and in Spanish-language media.
The billboards are sparking outrage in our communities because they reflect an even broader problem: the aggressive targeting of Latino youth by the beer industry — with dire consequences for our young people.
A recent report by The National Academies, Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, points out that Latino girls are initiating alcohol use at a younger age than any other group in the country. And the younger a person begins heavy drinking, the more likely they are to become addicted to alcohol, as well as to suffer possibly permanent learning deficits. Furthermore, alcohol use contributes to the three leading causes of death among Hispanic youth: unintentional injuries (including car crashes), homicide and suicide.
Other research has shown that America’s Latino communities have five times as many alcohol advertisements as predominantly white communities. And when alcohol advertisements depict Latinas as sexual objects, there are additional consequences. One study shows that a concentration of such ads leads to increased violence against Latinas between the ages of 15 to 18.
This advertising assault comes as the majority of Latinos lack access to good education, health care, well-paid jobs, and decent affordable housing. In 2001, for instance, 21.4 percent of Hispanics lived below the poverty rate, compared to 12.1 percent of the overall population.
In addition, the cultural traditions that provide Latino youth with a sense of identity and community are under attack. The alcohol industries, in particular, undermine our culture when they incorporate it into their marketing and present drinking in a light that demeans our culture. The Tecate billboard is a prime example — it was timed to sell beer during the Mexican-American holiday Cinco de Mayo, a family celebration and reflection of Hispanic history, culture and pride.
The beer industry claims to practice “responsible” advertising. But the Tecate billboards demonstrate the inadequacy of industry self-regulation. Its voluntary guidelines, “The Beer Advertising and Marketing Code” urges brewers to use advertising that is “sensitive to the problems of the society in which they exist,” and that reflects “generally accepted contemporary standards of good taste.”
We doubt that other minority communities would tolerate comparably offensive ads. It is hard to imagine the beer industry getting away with a billboard depicting a bottle of beer and reading: “FINALLY, A QUIET BLACK WOMAN,” or “FINALLY, A BIG-SPENDING JEW.”
High school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico, first raised the outcry against the Tecate billboards. Their young voices have reverberated in Los Angeles, Stockton, Sacramento, and in New York, Florida, and Texas. The remaining billboards must come down, and Labatt should issue its apology without delay. But that should be the beginning, not the end, of a renewed effort to support our young Latinas and Latinos, and stop the offensive racist and sexist advertising messages intended to benefit the beer industry and its profit margin.
For more information, please visit Latinos & Latinas for Health Justice at www.llhj.org.
Marilyn Aguirre-Molina is a Professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
Zelenne L. Cardenas is Director of Prevention Programs at Social Model Recovery Systems.