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Sex isn't enough: Carl's Jr. plays off race and Mexican border politics to sell burgers

Sex isn't enough: Carl's Jr. plays off race and Mexican border politics to sell burgers
Screenshot from Carl's Jr. "Borderball" ad (Dexter Thomas)

If you’ve ever seen a Carl’s Jr. ad, you know the formula: a scantily clad woman looks longingly at the camera, lets some sauce drip on her cleavage, followed by a quick-cut to the object of her come-hither stare: a hamburger. Basically, it’s softcore porn with bikinis and ketchup.

Four days ago, Carl’s Jr. released a new commercial called “Borderball.” This one adds race and immigration into the mix.

Carl’s Jr. has been criticized for its oversexualized commercials for at least a decade. In 2013, pop culture blog Jezebel did a rundown of the worst offenders, called Put It in My Mouth: A History of Disgusting Carl's Jr. Ads, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

So we’ll leave the topic of sexism (mostly) alone here, as that’s been well covered. Instead, let’s focus on the use of racial stereotypes.

The premise of “Borderball” is simple: two women have an argument over whether the Tex Mex Bacon Thickburger is more “Mex” or “Tex", and decide to settle it with a volleyball game.

Instead of a net, they use the border fence. On the left side is the “Mex” side – a squad of brunettes, being cheered on by a group of olive-skinned friends. On the right side of the court is the “Tex” side – a squad of blondes cheered on by white fans including a man waving a U.S. flag in the background.

Kara Del Toro, a model who is featured in the ad, explained in an interview why she didn’t think any stereotyping was involved:

"I guess they wanted to differentiate – this team was Hispanic, and this team was American, and that was just an easier way to do so…so you weren’t confused."

If seeing a Hispanic person on the American side of the border confuses you, then you must not get out much.

First of all, “Hispanic” and “American” are not mutually exclusive. People who trace their roots to Latin America, including Mexico, make up the largest non-white group in the U.S. – and more than 60% of them were born in this country.

In fact, usage of the word “Hispanic” itself is an American phenomenon, and only became officially recognized terminology when a government committee adopted it in 1975. You’re not likely to find many people in Mexico, or any other Latin American country, that answer to “Hispanic."

Second: Hispanics were nearly 39% of the state population of Texas in 2014, coming in at over 10 million people. Non-Hispanic whites only barely edge them out with 43.5%. In some border counties, like El Paso, Hispanics are 80% or more of the population. In real life, an all-white group of friends traipsing around the border would be a rarity.

Del Toro is surely aware of this. She’s Hispanic herself, and she was born and raised in Texas. But the commercial puts her on the Mexican side, again, in her words, so that “you weren’t confused.”

Because who would want to be mentally unsettled by seeing Americans in different shades of skin?

But it’s just a burger commercial, some might say. Sure – but if using white skin as a shorthand for American-ness is their advertising strategy, then Carl’s Jr. may have sunk to a new low.

Visually, the commercial’s message seems clear: Hispanics may not be truly American, but they do have some pretty señoritas. That’s equality, I guess.

The commercial comes at a time when the rhetoric over illegal immigration and border enforcement is white-hot thanks to campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. Billionaire business mogul Donald Trump has made illegal immigration a focus of his pitch to Republican voters.

He has boasted that he would create the greatest wall ever built – and make Mexico pay for it. He’s even appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon to joke about it.

A Carl’s Jr. spokesperson sent The Times an emailed statement, denying that the commercial is playing off the ongoing debate over the border, saying: “if a connection was made between the ad and politics – it was certainly not our intent.”

That statement seems hard to believe. Few issues inflame so many passions, and anyone in the advertising business knows that referencing current hot topics is an easy way to get into a viewer’s head. Carl’s Jr. cannot possibly have been unaware that immigration is one such hot topic.

Even Del Toro said that  the commercial is “playing up what’s going on politically right now with immigration.”

Maybe we shouldn’t expect much of Carl’s Jr. The measure of a good hamburger commercial is whether or not it makes us want to buy a hamburger – not how accurate it is. I’m not sure if that worked though, since most of the YouTube comments are about immigration and women’s body parts.

But the commercial does have one use. It’s proof that there is money to be made off our desire to parse out who gets to be an American, and who does not.

Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.

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