Observations on cultural differences from a gringo working in Mexico
On a clear day you can see a thousand billboards. It’s a good thing there aren’t many clear days because most of the billboards are bloody awful. But they are a visitor’s first introduction to Mexican advertising (and your first indication of the cultural difference between Mexico and where you come from). There appears to be at least one on top of every gaudily painted low rent apartment building beside the elevated dodgem car track that links the Benito Juarez Airport and downtown.
As a driver you don’t get to look at any of them. You’re too busy doing poltergeist impersonations trying to see from which direction the next machismo driver with an apparent death wish is going to launch his suicide attack. As a passenger you have a bit more time – although you have your eyes closed for a lot of the trip.Welcome to la Ciudad de México. Nobody knows for sure how many people live here. The current estimate is about 20 million. By all sociological accounts Mexico City ought to be a lesson in everything that is wrong with our car-based, population-concentrating way of life.
And yet, a city which should have choked on its own waste and bottlenecked itself to a complete standstill is today one of the most vibrant, culturally rich and spiritually alive cities on earth.
Above all, it’s a city of contrast. A few kilometres after you leave the solid wall of billboards you pass Chapultepec Park, at 1000 hectares one of the largest parks in the world. Beside it are suburbs leafier than any in most of the world’s major cities. For 3 months of the year, they’re also greener. But since it doesn’t rain from October to July and nobody thinks to water the grass or plants, there’s a big part of the year where grassy parkland becomes barren dust bowl.
(Between this dust, the foul exhaust of 5 million vehicles and the frequent ash belched from one of the volcanoes surrounding the city, the air doesn’t stand a chance.)
Around the corner from Tiffany’s store you’ll see a man pushing a mobile wood-fired oven. He advertises his presence by blowing a steam whistle – one so loud it can be heard many blocks away – and one which must surely have destroyed his hearing. He is the camote vendor. He cooks sweet potatoes in his oven and sells them, wrapped in brown greaseproof paper and drizzled with condensed milk, for a few pesos.
Other vendors advertise their presence in similar ways. The knife sharpener blows a series of descending notes on his bird whistle. The garbos send an advance guard down the street who rings a large brass hand bell.
This is Mexican advertising at grass roots level. cultural differences
Shopping from the back of a 74 Dodge
Marketing and distribution as it’s practiced in Mexico doesn’t come from any business management course. Sure, Frito-Lay distributes to supermarket chains. But a big chunk of their sales take place behind 1974 Dodges, where the boot has been opened to reveal a fully stocked convenience store. Down the road another car boot is a make-up counter. Another is a delicatessen with cheeses and sausages from Oaxaca.
At traffic lights (along with fire-eaters, jugglers, acrobats and windscreen washers), you might find vendors selling sets of Tupperware, jigsaw maps of Mexico, magnifying glasses or an odd assortment of door mirrors (probably stolen from cars just 24 hours ago). Nearby, music comes hideously distorted from the speakers of a stall selling pirated cassettes (yes, they still have them) and compact discs.
This amazing vibrant sub culture is such an important part of life in Mexico. In a country of 95 million, maybe 90 million buy their fresh food at markets. They get all their electrical, hardware, stationery and similar needs at hole-in-the-wall specialist shops.
Even though 95 million people see and hear the advertising messages of McDonalds, Kellogg and Procter & Gamble, only a small number of them will be in the market for these companies’ products.
And just as there’s a huge makeshift commerce to satisfy the needs of the majority, there’s a spectacularly showy commerce built to meet the conspicuous needs of this moneyed minority.
Sushi, Yes. Shoelaces, No.
But even here there are anomalies. The supermarkets in which they shop probably sell sushi, rolled to order. But they don’t sell shoelaces.
There are shelves of pre-sliced sponge-like loaves of sandwich bread. But in front of them is a table of plain brown paper parcels, each one containing hot fresh tortillas, baked soft and fluffy in the bakery out the back.
This latter oddity seems to be evidence of a common belief here – that the gringo way of doing things isn’t always better. Sure you can buy liquid washing detergents but most people prefer the much cheaper tubs of soap paste. Sure you can buy straw brooms. But most buy a bunch of twigs and tie them to a long pole. You have problems with rats? Spread some poisonous pink paste on stale tortillas and leave them in the garden.
A large part of this group of moneyed Mexicans was educated in the States. Many of them know Houston better than they know parts of Mexico City. Almost all of them acknowledge the attractions of life in the USA. But they prefer to live in Mexico. Because in Mexico, a man greets a male friend with an abrazo – an embrace accompanied by three slaps on the back which would knock the wind out of the fragile. A man’s mother is at the epicentre of his world. His wife has produced the children of whom he’s so proud (and she in turn will be venerated by his children). Family is all-important. And yet it’s expected that a man will have a mistress.
Mexico and America. Never the twain.
The way business is conducted in Mexico infuriates many Americans. Obsessed by time, they get frustrated by a Mexican’s apparent disdain for it. The first hour of each business day in Mexico seems to disappear in a blur of handshakes, kisses and embraces. At 2 o’clock some people head home or to a restaurant for the comida – the main meal of the day. Others who live too far from work have brought lunch packs with rice, beans, chicken and salsa which have filled the office kitchen’s refrigerator all morning and are now being reheated in the microwave ovens provided. A new business presentation won’t get around to business until the subjects of health, families, sport, food, holidays or weekend have been explored to exhaustion.
The business of advertising has the same language as in my home country of Australia but it’s a completely different business. As I discovered whilst working there, you can write a headline for a line of poultry which makes a reference to eggs and everyone knows you’re referring to a part of the male anatomy. But if an underwear manufacturer shows a woman revealing too much flesh, he’ll come under extraordinary pressure from Opus Dei (a consortium of deeply conservative Catholic business leaders) to remove it.
In 2 years, I came to love this contradictory personality. I see a little of Australians’ relaxed attitude to life here in Mexico – only elevated to an art form.
I have finally come to understand and appreciate the differences I see between the Australian and Mexican approaches to my business sector – to marketing, to research, to advertising. But also to life.
Something happens here which seems to release the quirkier side of people’s personalities. Something happens which leaves marketers prepared to take more risks than they might in other markets.
Maybe it’s the same gene that allows Mexicans to call themselves “sons of the raped women” (a reference to Mexico’s violent mixture of Spanish catholic and Indian pagan cultures). Maybe it’s the tequila. Maybe it’s a language thing. Maybe it’s cultural.
Somehow the Managing Directors, Marketing Directors and Brand Managers of the most conservative multinational marketers seem to become creatively unshackled south of the border. At the same time their bosses back in Cincinnati or Akron or Minneapolis seem less willing to reject the wacky ideas being sent from their Mexican colleagues. Do they wonder if the idea lost something in translation? Do they explain it with a “oh well, I guess that’s the way they do things down there” and approve it anyway?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve seen fresher, quirkier, wackier ideas for famously cautious clients made in Mexico (and in other Latin American markets) than just about anywhere else.
Death, how we love you.
Maybe it shouldn’t really be so surprising. Here’s a country whose relationship with death is diametrically and bizarrely opposed to that north of the border. I can’t imagine the descendents of the Pilgrim Fathers remembering their departed loved ones with all-night picnics in the cemetery. I can’t imagine them savouring a cake with crossed thighbones and a skull on top. I can’t imagine them writing taunting poems to la huesuda – Mrs Death. Nor wishing a long and healthy life to their friends by giving them sugar skulls with the friend’s name written on the forehead.
Here’s a country where friends call each other the names of farm animals. (A word of caution – the same name could start a fight if used unwisely.)
Many times I had a headline explained to me and even though I understood the explanation, I still didn’t have a clue what it means. I simply accepted that it’s common slang, it has a double meaning and it’s very funny. “We make the ad, it appears at the local advertising award show, everyone in the room falls about laughing and it wins a Gold.” That’s what my creative teams would tell me.
It rhymes with duck
One campaign we produced for Procter & Gamble’s Rindex laundry detergent is a fine example. A chubby singer imitated the style of one of Mexico’s favourite troubadours, Chava Flores. Chava Flores was famous for telling stories of ordinary Mexicans using the language of ordinary Mexicans. A feature of his style was to cut the last syllable from shocking words, leaving the listener to complete them. (An English equivalent would be lyrics in which a word starting with “f” rhymes with the last word of the previous line, “duck”. You get the picture.)
When the commercials were aired, they were instantly adored by the ordinary Mexicans who are the target market for this detergent. Sales multiplied. And somewhere, many many kilometres to the north there is a Global Product Category Manager who to this day still doesn’t have a clue why the campaign was so successful – nor why the singer didn’t complete some of the lyrics.
If research is too often used as an insurance policy in Australia (“I’ll research it so that if the campaign doesn’t work I can always show the positive research results”), in Mexico it seems to me that it is mostly used because a marketer genuinely wants to know how his customers feel. Usually, this happens after he’s assessed how his wife feels – or his mistress – or both. And this is usually after he’s taken a good 60 seconds to assess how HE feels.
Of course, there’s a down side. We celebrate when a client looks at some work and says “I like it. How soon can you make it?” But we’re stuck when he doesn’t like it – because you can’t argue personal taste. It’s a risk I’d always be prepared to take.
If some nationalities are customarily portrayed as cool, logical and humourless, Mexicans are at the far end of the personality spectrum.
Cultural differences run amok
As drivers, they won’t be constrained by line markings or stop signs.
A red light is an invitation to stop, not an instruction.
A left or right turn can be made from any lane at all. To add excitement to the manoeuvre, it’s best not to indicate.
To give way to another male driver is to invite speculation about your machismo. To stop without warning to give way to a woman is confirmation of your machismo.
In countries like Australia, the discovery that drivers aren’t obeying road signs usually initiates a police blitz. In Mexico a few years ago they changed a law to permit drivers to disregard red lights after 11pm. They changed the law because drivers were disregarding red lights. I love that.
Every year there seems to be an extensive and enthusiastic planting program along one of the city’s main avenues. In many other countries, this would be followed by a rigorous watering program. Not here. They simply let the plants die and next year they’ll put in some new ones.
One day I asked Jose (who looked after the agency kitchen) why he kept hiding the milk. His answer was “Because people keep drinking it”.
Maybe that’s why we get away with things here in Mexico. The language and codes of modern business are generally American. They are logical, concise, dispassionate, frugal.
Confronted with illogical, impulsive, emotional and tardy Mexico, suddenly nothing makes sense. And when nothing makes sense, the proper response should be to simply shrug your shoulders, shake your heads, put it down to cultural differences and let those crazy guys south of the border do whatever it is that they do.
PS To see my own contribution to Mexican billboard advertising, click here.