Are Telemundo’s new ads racist?

Before Telemundo became a thing on DSTV, it was something D.L. Hughley said on The Hughleys to draw laughs.

A few years later, TV Azteca’s Cuando Seas Mea arrived on Nigerian primetime in all its dubbed glory. Nigerians (mostly ones who lived in Abuja and Lagos anyway) were hooked. Sebastian Y Catalina did not quite attain the dizzying heights of When You’re Mine but the era of the telenovela had arrived – the airing of Second Chance cemented the fact. Soon, DSTV put two and two together and up popped Telemundo on its bouquets. The channel of course found a natural home on GOTV, Multichoice’s DSTV-lite, mekunu-oriented digital TV platform. The amount of Nigerian advertising on the channel gives a rough approximation of what its viewing figures must be.

This popularity must be the rationale behind Telemundo’s new ads (not montages), which are oddly aired on Telemundo itself.

Both ads, themed “one look and you’re hooked”, feature only blacks. In one, it is morning. A maid is fixated on the television, oblivious of the shirt smoking under the iron she’s holding. A woman, obviously the maid’s principal, enters the room, ostensibly piqued by the smell of burning cloth. She too zones out when she follows the maid’s gaze. The woman’s husband comes into the room next, a singlet over his pants, in search of the shirt which will complete his dressing. Initially incredulous, he too follows the maid’s gaze and is zombified. The maid hands him his shirt, which he promptly begins to wear, oblivious of the devastation on the front of the shirt. What’s so riveting on the TV? A signature telenovela scene of course: a blanquito and a blanquita – beautiful – are kissing like it’s a wrestling match.

The other ad follows the same broad outline, this time in a hairdresser’s salon. The cast is all female. A hairdresser is fixated on the television as she roasts a customer’s hair. The customer, apoplectic, challenges the hairdresser and is shushed, the hairdresser’s zombified gaze never wavering. It is an outrage and said customer attempts to understand what the cause is. Mistake: her roasting hair is forgotten. Elsewhere, another woman’s hair bursts into fire. All around the salon, women have had one look at a Telemundo telenovela in which a blanquita has pulled a gun on a blanquito in front of what appears like a family of blancos.

The ads are certainly compelling and humorous – only the hard-hearted will not laugh at the ruinous zombification of novelaguayos, to borrow (and alter) a Dominicanism from Junot Diaz And let it be said that the appeal of telenovelas come from their compelling if formulaic telling of “universal” stories: stories of love, betrayal and intrigue layered upon themselves; stories enacted mostly by whites, stories where the only blacks you’ll see are so blanquified that they’re far closer to white than black. Yet, Nigerians watch them with gusto, completely oblivious of the fact of black presence in Mexico.

And here’s the problem with those ads. If the telenovelas themselves so compel Nigerians despite being black-free, the ads would have been too. Ruinous zombification can be as universal as love, and we would have laughed too had the ad actors been white. It is possible that Telemundo’s intentions were completely honest. It is possible that it simply thinks it is attempting to appeal to its audience by using their likeness, but the ads’ blatant association of black people with ruinous zombification recalls everything dastardly about the image of blacks in the white mind (and in the culture produced by that mind). It is impermissible coincidence. It’s like putting a black model on sunscreen.

Interestingly, only in 2016 did Mexico, home of Telemundo, officially recognize its 1.38 million afromexicanos. In film and media, afromexicanos are largely notably invisible – one only needs to watch Telemundo to confirm the fact. Perhaps Telemundo might find it more rewarding to social cohesion in Mexico to help redress this significant imbalance, rather than perpetuating insidious narratives about blacks.

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