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The Super Bowl Ads Where Ethnic Elbowed In

Just a Few Tried a Total-Market Approach, With Striking Results

By Published on . 2

One way we might judge this year's Super Bowl ads is by how much they reflect a total-market view of the world.  I am not talking about ethnic casting, or ethnic spokespeople, but rather the presence of cultural cues. These are subtle suggestions that ethnic values or habits -- primarily Hispanic, since that is the most powerful multicultural influence in the country right now -- are being assimilated into mainstream media.

For purposes of this list, Budweiser's use of Stevie Wonder as a voodoo mystic doesn't count; yet elderly Caucasians seeming to adopt elements of Chicano culture, with a party scene and tattoos in an otherwise mainstream pitch for Taco Bell, does count.

The Hispanic cues show not just growing Hispanic influence, but are evidence that at least some ethnic norms are being appropriated more broadly by U.S. popular culture.

Here are two standout total-market executions from the Super Bowl, with distinctly different strategies -- bold and risky vs. subtle.

Bold and Risky
Taco Bell's "Party Seniors." Older Caucasians escape into the evening in this "Cocoon goes gangster" spot.  Music, cars and other Hispanic-inspired cues permeate. This ad, like the VW ad (discussed below), could be seen as borderline on Hispanic negative stereotyping, so this approach is not without risk. But showing older Caucasians riding in low riders, getting inked and having Spanish music throughout the spot was a bold approach to Hispanic appropriation. By comparison to recent films, was it more like Will Ferrell's "Casa de mi Familia" than "Y Tu Mama Tambien" in terms of authenticity to culture? Yes. Still interesting how Taco Bell pushed the envelope here.

Subtle
Pepsi Next. Kid throws house party when parents are away. Flash to Lucha Libre Mexican wrestler mask as part of that party. Having the brief, yet clear signal to Hispanics that they are included in the party, and therefore the brand, is what total market is about. Perhaps considered mainstream in the post-"Nacho Libre"/"Mucha Lucha" world? This execution was safer, more subtle than Taco Bell, but nonetheless true to the idea that you can go mainstream with Hispanic reference points.

And finally, a non-Hispanic example of cultural appropriation that similarly pushes the envelope of cultural stereotypes:

VW's "Get Happy." Caucasian guy from Minnesota ("Land of 10,000 Lakes, mon) adopts a Jamaican Rasta accent which then spreads to Asian and older co-workers as they drive the new VW bug and get an attitude adjustment. Where is the line? The ad was funny, generally presenting a "Jamaican" attitude as positive. Yet, as with many cultural references, could be criticized as overly simplistic and potentially condescending.

Yet consider how many brands did not go down the path of using more ethnic cultural cues in their spots. It was surprising that more youth-oriented brands did not push further, as prior to the Super Bowl some industry actors were predicting. 

As more marketers like Kellogg's, General Mills and McDonald's continue on the total-market path, we should see more ads of this nature in the next Super Bowl. The rise of ethnicity in consumer identity is pushing the trend, ever so cautiously. Is this the first baby step toward more ads of this nature? Or is it toe in the water and recoil? What do you think?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Palacios is exec VP of Cheskin Added Value, New York.
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