Mexico and the unbearable whiteness of advertising

From beers to cars to supermarkets, Mexico and other postcolonial societies are grappling with a whiteness epidemic.

Members of the Afro-Mexican community take part in the annual festival dedicated to San Nicolas Tolentino, in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero state, Mexico.
The 2.5 million strong Afro-Mexican community are effectively rendered invisible in advertisements in Mexico, say experts [File: PEDRO PARDO/AFP]

Scrolling through Facebook recently on my phone in Mexico, I came upon an advertisement informing me in Spanish: “The moment has arrived to renew yourself.” A company based in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León offered to loan me up to 250,000 pesos — more than $12,000 — to pursue the plastic surgery of my choice. An image of a bikini-clad white woman with blond hair provided additional encouragement.

A perusal of the company’s Facebook page revealed that she was not the only white person selected to promote these surgically focused financial services. In fact, not a single non-white person had been chosen to embody “renewal”. This in a country where the vast majority of people are not white, and where a soaring national poverty rate — nearly 44 percent at the end of 2020 — means most folks could never afford a $12,000 loan.

And yet the Nuevo León firm is scarcely alone in its extra-white marketing approach. Generally speaking, the chromatic composition of Mexican advertising exists in glaring defiance of the physical diversity of Mexico’s primarily mestizo (mixed heritage) and Indigenous population. As is the case elsewhere in Latin America and in other countries subjected to European colonial depredations, the Spanish colonial legacy in Mexico has meant that lighter skin is associated with societal superiority and economic advantage. And what is the point of advertising if not to make people want to be something “better” than they are?

Nowadays in Mexico, the citizen-consumer is bombarded with advertising images that blatantly illustrate the overlap of racism and classism in the social hierarchy. From beer and car companies to department stores and supermarket chains, the whiteness of ads has become a sort of sinister elephant in the room, urging poor Mexicans to spend their way out of socioeconomic misery into an impossibly whiter future.

As social anthropologist Juris Tipa notes in a 2020 peer-reviewed paper on “colourism” in Mexican advertising, the overwhelmingly dominant casting profile requested by firms for commercial advertisements is “international Latino” — which basically translates into someone with light skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, “reinforcing the imagery of a ‘Europeanised Latin Americanity’” at the expense of the average Mexican.

Meanwhile, the Afro-Mexican population — which is more than 2.5 million strong — is effectively rendered invisible by the commercial advertising landscape, as Juris observes. In contributing to the perpetuation of a vicious cycle of colourist discrimination, advertising firms and their clients have helped maintain a colonial “pigmentocracy” in Mexico.

Sometimes, the Mexican advertising industry gets publicly called out for its racist shenanigans — like in 2018 when an ad campaign for Indio beer featured a bunch of fair-skinned Mexicans sporting t-shirts on which the phrase “pinche indio” (“f****** Indian”, a prevalent insult in Mexico) was partially crossed out and replaced with “orgullosamente indio” or “proudly Indian”. According to the minds behind the campaign, its objective was to raise awareness of discrimination in the country — something that is clearly best achieved by having white people appropriate Indigenous identity.

When I asked a middle-aged Mexican man — a descendant of Totonac people from the state of Veracruz — what he made of the faux wokeness of the whole Indio campaign, he shrugged and reckoned it was no worse than the ads from decades past for Mexico’s Superior beer brand, which had involved frolicking blond women, the US actress Farrah Fawcett, and the slogan “la rubia que todos quieren,” or “the blond that everyone wants”.

Of course, the unbearable whiteness of advertising is hardly confined to Mexico. Travelling by bus years ago through Peru, I recall questioning the logic behind populating highway billboards with Scandinavian-type models in a country where the majority of humans are brown.

From soda advertisements in El Salvador to laundry detergent ads in Colombia to the “Elite” toilet paper brand found throughout Latin America, the consensus appears to be that whiteness sells — a result, in part, of the superior societal value placed on white skin.

On the other side of the world, too, colonial legacies of racist colourism die hard. In West Africa in 2017, the German company Nivea came under fire for promoting a cream that promised “visibly fairer skin”. That same year, Nivea was forced to pull a deodorant ad proclaiming “White Is Purity”. Naturally, the company is still making bank five years later. Welcome to capitalism.

Speaking of capitalism, University of Hawaii professor L Ayu Saraswati, whose essay on “shaming the colour of beauty” in Indonesia was published in 2012 in the scholarly journal Feminist Studies, documents how transnational corporations like Unilever and L’Oreal have “aggressively marketed their skin-whitening creams throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States”. And while this may be business as usual in the globalised era, it also constitutes corporate complicity in the normalisation of racism.

Unilever is the parent company of Dove, the US soap brand that had its own “oops” marketing moment in 2017 with an ad that showed a Black woman turning into a white woman. It bears mentioning, though, that the US is usually exempt from the unbearable whiteness of advertising, as the industry often instead prefers a multicoloured, multiethnic approach that projects an image of harmonious egalitarianism — and that stands in stark contrast to the domestic US reality of dog-eat-dog neoliberalism, institutionalised racism, and general non-democracy.

Call it false advertising — and a handy justification for the US’s self-declared right to impose its will on the rest of humanity.

But back to that Mexican financial services firm and the loan that can turn you into a blond white woman in a bikini. As the current US brand of racist capitalism wreaks havoc in Mexico and across the Global South — and poor people are taught to aspire to socioeconomic advancement in a system designed to keep them poor — all this whiteness looks pretty dark, indeed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.