Last week, The New York Times published an article on the lack of Latino-specific children’s books. It created quite a stir, with hundreds of commentators taking a very extreme position either in favor or against the notion that having more Latino books could help Latino kids become more engaged with reading.
Many of the commentators were infuriated, saying that the article was missing the point; that the problem of reading had nothing to do with the content and that focusing on Latinos reading more Latino-infused literature could actually increase the “cultural divide.”
The Need for Representation
This episode reminds me of what happened when Disney introduced the television film “Sofia the First” a couple of months ago. It created a controversy around the main character being a Latina. Initially, many Latinos felt proud about having representation. Then, people started questioning the character, saying that she was too white. In the end, Disney management added some clarification (or confusion) to the table, claiming that “Sofia was never supposed to be Latina in the first place.”
It’s clear that there is a huge appetite for more Latino representation when it comes to the entertainment space. The growing “I want to see more Latinos in Film and TV!” Facebook page is another great example. But this need for Latino representation sparks a lot of sensitivity as well. It’s part of a bigger paradox: Latinos don’t like being singled out, but definitely want to be portrayed more often.
Going back to The New York Times article, it seems to me that most of the commentators got lost in the agree/disagree position, rather than in understanding the phenomenon that the article was addressing. The writer was not saying that Latino kids should only read (and be inspired by) Latino books. He was talking about the importance of being represented: if kids don’t see characters like themselves, they might not feel included (in the overall cultural conversation).
Culture As a Mirror
This need for representation is not limited to Latinos. Other emerging cultures – segments that are growing in both size and influence – need to be reflected as well.
It reminds me of a recent study where kids were asked to draw a picture of a scientist and the vast majority drew a white male. Then the students went to a real lab and were exposed to “real” scientists and saw how diverse they actually were. After that visit, the kids were asked to do the same exercise. Interestingly, girls drew more girl scientists, and students of color drew pictures of scientists of color. A clear example of how kids see the world through the eyes of culture. Movies and books (and, of course, advertising) play a huge role in defining culture.
Another great example is beauty. The notion of beauty is deeply engrained in culture. Another stir was created when a black girl was cast for a role in “The Hunger Games” film. Many fans of the book objected to the decision and insisted that the character was supposed to be “white and innocent” and that a girl of color simply didn’t look “innocent.”
Brands need to address (and show) the growing influence that Latinos and other emerging cultures are playing. Latinos interact with mainstream culture (movies, TV shows, food, music, etc.); they consume it; they are being influenced by, but also are influencing the mainstream. In addition to that, they connect with specific values, behaviors, and interests that are part of their heritage or culture.
Unfortunately, as seen on TV, Latinos are still presented stereotypically and/or in a generic fashion with no reference to ethnic cultural experiences. It seems to me that marketers need to do a better job when it comes to, what I call, “cultural inclusiveness.”
Cultural Inclusiveness: Permission to Dream
“Cultural inclusiveness” means that people want to be portrayed as part of a bigger whole, but also feel connected to their specific collective community. They want some aspects of their Latino culture to be included in mainstream manifestations but also want to engage with specific Latino manifestations.
Culture is a projection of who we are, where we are coming from, and what we can become. Latino parents used to want their kids to be more successful than them. Today, they are dreaming bigger: they want their kids to be more successful than any other kids (“If we helped elect a president, why can’t my kid become the first Latino president?”).
Some initial steps toward “cultural inclusiveness”:
- Move beyond representation; it’s not just a casting game.
- Showcase Latinos as part of the bigger mainstream culture, but also influencing the mainstream.
- Engage people by a combination of both Latino-targeted and more “inclusive” mainstream marketing efforts.
- Bridge the gap by creating Latino content (like books): let kids know that stories about people like them are worth telling.
- Create acts, not just ads, showing how your brand understands the culture (like Rolling Stone’s Latino-infused edition).
- Provide the inspiration (and tools) for young Latinos to dream big.
Going back to the mirror analogy: brands should reflect the new (Latino) reality. Brands should give Latinos permission to dream.