When I saw the headline of Univision's latest study - "Why Latinos Look So Good" – I have to admit, I was pleased. There are stereotypes that clearly benefit the people they purport to describe, and the myth of the Latin lover - and it is a myth - has never created problems for me. You learn to live with (exploit) myths like these. But there are other stereotypes, obviously, that can cause harm. And not just harm to their targets, but harm to the people who use the stereotypes for practical purposes.
Yes, I am talking about harm to marketers.
That might have been one of the points in the Univision study, which looked at the grooming habits of Latino males. Univision found that Latino men are more avid users of personal care products than non-Latino men. "The findings of Univision's study prove that as marketers we have to shed the misperception of Hispanic men as 'machos' and start to look at them as 'vanidosos' who take extra care of their appearance," said Ruth Gaviria, Univision's SVP of corporate marketing, in a press release. In other words, the ancient macho Latino stereotype - which continues to paint all Latino males with a broad brush - may also be impairing the way marketers think. Univision seems to be saying that it's time for a new way to look at Latinos. Or perhaps, it's time for a new stereotype.
I'm not being facetious. There is nothing wrong with stereotypes per se, provided you know their uses, limitations, and dangers. As for the uses, a clue comes from the origins of the word - both stereotype and cliché are old printer's terms denoting reusable blocks of type that sped up the process of production. In marketing, the stereotype aids with framing a notion about a demographic - essential for scaling to large audiences. The "Latin lover" has helped Hollywood sell pictures for more than 75 years, with each generation crowning and adoring a new leading man (only recently has Javier Bardem replaced Antonio Banderas). And the secret ingredient - machismo - has been packaged and repackaged to sell lots of products - cars, cigarettes, shaving cream, cologne - to people attracted to its less toxic properties (for not everything about machismo is desirable). And not all of this packaging and selling is serious. The macho Latin lover is entertaining as social satire. He is, as Dos Equis recently reminded us, "The Most Interesting Man in the World."
But just as stereotypes enable us to do more with less (the discovery that printers made way back when), they limit our ability to see the nuances in real life. This is perhaps why they lend themselves to both Hollywood and comic renditions. Stereotypes are not precise. So when Univision discovered that Latino men were engaging "in grooming behaviors previously considered only for women," it was time to stop the presses. By asking advertisers to stop thinking of Latino men as macho (men who take part in the so-called "cult of virility") and instead look at them as vanidosos (men who care about their appearance), Univision was making the case for a market segment that has been obscured by the old stereotype. Personal care products constitute a huge category, and if Latino men are indexing the way Univision claims, this is a greenfield opportunity for many brands. By swapping the macho stereotype for the vanidoso stereotype, Univision may have created a new market. The older market for macho can still persist, but with this new market, media companies like Univision can look at expansion.
The True Object of Our Desire?
When I first heard about the Univision study, I was immediately impressed by the "swap the stereotype" strategy. For not only is Univision helping to create a new market, it may have identified the flipside of machismo - vanity. And both sides make money. The strength of the macho stereotype may have blinded advertisers to what any student of nature knows to be true. From the male peacock to the fiddler crab (with its ridiculously enlarged claw), there are countless examples of showy male behavior designed to win the affection of the opposite sex. And it's only our enslavement to an old stereotype that we are arriving late to the male personal care market.
There's only one problem with this line of thinking - it doesn't tell the full story. One of the most interesting findings in the Univision study is that more men were driven to look good to get ahead in the workplace, not to attract lovers. As it turns out, getting ahead in the workplace is a big priority for Latino men. "[M]ore Hispanics (32 percent) said they 'want to get to the very top of their careers' than non-Hispanics (12 percent)."
Reading that, I was reminded of one of the most obviously troubling things about stereotypes - their tendency to limit our ability to think of their targets as human beings. The importance of the workplace for American Latinos - which Univision deserves credit for uncovering - deserves greater attention from brands and advertisers. And it's an opportunity, ironically, that parallels the experience of women in our country. The phenomenon of women "dressing for success" - and the related phenomenon of "dressing for other women" - came alive in the 1970s, the apogee of the women's moment. At a time when Latino men are experiencing worse health and economic "outcomes" than non-Latino men, advertisers should think harder about the opportunity they have to support a new movement.
In the meantime, I wonder if the vanidoso stereotype can carry the day going forward. Although Univision framed the term generously to describe men who take care of themselves, it can easily be taken to mean something far more shallow. Perhaps a little levity might help here, just as it has with machismo. When "Chico and the Man" first aired in 1974, Freddie Prinze (the late, great Latino comic from New York City) quickly grew famous with the tagline, ''It's not my job!" Latinos found it offensive, and in the second season, Prinze went with the new tagline, "Looking good!" No one complained. As the Univision study observed, looking good is feeling good. And as stereotypes go, that ain't bad.
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Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.
March 19, 2014