Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wood’s Rebuke

I don’t know Bertha Jean Wood of Katy, TX. I’m gonna talk about her, though. First, note what Don Markstein says on his excellent ToonpediaTM website: “There was a time when Americans thought it was okay to poke fun at people about their cultural heritage.”

All too often, this habit took the form of mascots for very well-known brands. Markstein calls them commercial spokestoons.

The clichéd Frito Bandito© brand mascot was created for Fritos Corn Chips in 1967 by ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding. The character, animated by the genuinely famous Tex Avery, lasted about five years. Then in ’71, pressure by Mexican-American groups, accusing Frito-Lay and FCB of playing up racial stereotypes, forced the Bandito into permanent retirement.

Thirty-plus years later, the shoe is on some other foot. Or is it possible you’ve been asleep while the latest Wal-Mart kerfluffle’s been going on in Houston? It’s about the “much beloved” Mexican cultural icon, Memín Pinguín – again.

There’s so many blog posts, so much information on this flap, you can Google it all for yourself. What you do need to know is that Mexico’s past president, Vicente Fox, said back in 2005 that he didn't understand what all the fuss was about over Memín Pinguín. He insisted that Memín’s image was not racist, but a beloved character embraced by all Mexicans.

Out of the smoke of the cultural battlefield comes Ms Wood’s letter to the Houston Chronicle (Saturday, July 12, 2008, page B6). It would be a succinct 44 words if she didn’t have to refer to the paper’s overlong headline. She wrote:

I am glad to read that former Mexican President Vicente Fox sees nothing offensive about the Memín Pinguín character. (Please see “Comic draws charges of racism/Customers ask Wal-Mart stores to remove book,” City and State cover, Tuesday.) The right to free speech should never be compromised. Since we all agree on that, can we have Speedy Gonzalez and the Frito Bandito back? Please?

Thank you, Ms Wood. I hope and expect that you will extend that same incisive judgment to cultural stereotypes, whether they’re good or bad.

When is it time to put aside some beloved icon? Maybe it’s when your stakeholders transform themselves. Or when you’re no longer selling in “your” market. Trick is, discovering when that time comes before everything blows up in your face.

PS: Review some familiar brand mascot makeovers here.


Richard Laurence Baron said...

For the moment, “spokescritters” are safe – the AFLAC duck, for example, and the Geico gecko. Unfortunately, this trend has taken us to even worse extremes, such as the not-really-charming Mr. Mucus®, whom you can meet at (eww!).

S Reeves said...

Burger King needs to try again. That giant plastic face dude is well, too plastic. And creepy.

It's a shame Betty Crocker had to become a computerized composite of 75 women. It reminds me of a challenge I was given about 8 years ago to diversify a cover image. We could only show a mom and a "child". So I was asked to make the girl child look more boy like.