Cornell Athletics Apologizes for ‘Culturally Insensitive’ Marketing Campaign

October 6, 2013 10:40 pm36 comments

By AKANE OTANI

Students and administrators alike condemned Cornell Athletics for running what they say was a culturally insensitive, Cinco de Mayo-themed marketing campaign that included encouraging community members to don sombreros and ponchos.

The marketing campaign, which was launched Wednesday to promote Cornell’s football game Saturday against Colgate University, was meant to “develop a festive atmosphere at the football game,” according to Jeff Hall, associate director of sales and marketing for Cornell Athletics.

As part of the campaign, the University encouraged community members to participate in a “photobooth” activity that involved the person with the “best costume” winning a prize, according to Carmen Martinez ’14, who saw a poster advertising the game in Goldwin Smith.

The University also sent a promotional email asking community members to celebrate “Ithaca: Cinco de Octubre.” Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that celebrates the 1862 Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla, is celebrated on May 5.

“I was disappointed that this theme was stereotyping the Mexican culture of which I identify,” Martinez said. “I was especially troubled by the ‘photobooth’ activity, especially after one of my colleagues pointed out that the winner [is the person] with the ‘best costume,’ implying the best Mexican costume was going to win a prize. What better way to invite stereotyping of our culture?”

Several student groups and Latino community members contacted University officials saying the marketing campaign was offensive, culturally insensitive and inappropriate. As of Friday, the University had canceled all radio spots and removed all posters, social media posts and photos referring to the campaign, according to Hall.

“We [tried] to get the crowd rowdy, have free nachos, popcorn, etc. … But the sombreros or ponchos … it really got to the point where it was a little bit offensive to Latino heritage and culture [and] might be promoting them in a different light,” Hall said.

He added that the University has “learned a lesson.”

“This has been a learning opportunity for me and for our marketing group, and we are committed to working with our community so this does not occur again,” Hall said in a statement on behalf of Cornell Athletics.

Although the University apologized for the marketing campaign, members of the Latino community said they felt Cornell Athletics’ statement lacked transparency and was insufficient.

“This speaks to a broader issue of how hierarchy and bureaucracy allow for athletic departments at elite universities to behave as they wish without much accountability,” Francisco Rodriguez ’14 said. “What is going to happen to Ezra’s Army, [a group that describes itself on Facebook as being the official student fan club of Cornell Athletics] … as a result of this? … any form of education?”

The fact that the administration was behind the marketing campaign was “disappointing,” Stephanie Martinez ’14 said.

“If the people that have a lot of say in what happens at this school can’t tell when something is inappropriate, we have a problem,” she said. “My first question was how did this get so far without anyone noticing that this could be hurtful to people on campus, people that are supposed to be part of this ‘inclusive’ community? This definitely tainted the idea of community at Cornell.”

Stephanie Martinez added that it was strange that the University chose Cinco de Mayo to promote a football game in October.

“What upset me the most was the email that was sent out promoting the event. Having this event promoted as ‘the greatest new holiday in Ithaca: Cinco de Octubre’ is a mockery, because clearly, this is an allusion to Cinco de Mayo,” she said. “In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has been used as a marketing tool, and its real meaning has been lost in the process. Referring to Cinco de Mayo is again very stereotypical and demonstrates the lack of knowledge of our culture and our history.”

Hall said the choice of the Cinco de Mayo theme was made as Cornell Athletics was “trying to develop different kinds of themes … to achieve a festive, Homecoming-type atmosphere.”
“We learned a lesson [that] certainly, that’s not the way to go,” he said.

Administrators reiterated that they do not by any means condone the marketing campaign.

Susan Murphy ’73 Ph.D. ’94, vice president of Student and Academic Services, said in a statement Friday that the incident “is an important reminder about how we must function as an increasingly diverse community.”

“Celebrating our cultures is important and vital for all of us. Using stereotypes and other people’s cultures to market events is wrong,” she said.

Comments

  • ToCornell

    So a legitimate question, do members of the Latino community have a monopoly on the use of a sombrero? Is any use of a sombrero not by a latino community member immediately racist? I really cant imagine that this was horribly offensive to anyone, and this sort of nitpicking is the sort of action that turns away the average Cornellian from sympathizing with members of the minority community. I have no doubt that members of the Latino community face serious inequities in certain facets of society, but I don’t think making a fuss over the use of a sombrero is the best way to demonstrate ingrained societal discrimination. Truly, there must be more serious problems to focus on.

    • Re:ToCornell

      The sombrero was not what made the situation wrong…the whole marketing campaign did. The commercialization of one’s heritage or culture to a stereotypical and wrong image is damaging to the community it “represents” and to those who buy into it. The fact that someone may not understand how this is culturally insensitive shows the lack of education and ignorance that occurs at Cornell. In light of several racial and ethnic themed parties and events that occurred in other institutions last year alone makes this occurrence surprising to me to be happening now at Cornell.

      The worrisome part to me is the administration involved that oversees whatever student group came up with this bad idea. Malicious or not, it was clearly a mockery and it was not noticed until it was too late. I just hope they do not tokenize any students on the team who may be from the community and say “well this Latino thought it was ok” because… then, yeah… Cornell really has a problem.

      • ToCornell

        I’m not trying to be abrasive, but actually attempting to understand your position. So would you assign the same damage that you believe was caused by this event to say, any University event that features a Christmas tree, which commercializes and stereotype the Christmas Holiday or the use of an Irish Shamrock for a St. Patricks Day celebration which is a commercialization of a holiday very important to the Church of Ireland? To me, it is difficult to accept your argument because it seems that many holidays feature commercialization of heritage, culture, or religion, and yet, I have never heard of Christians or the Irish being seriously damaged by the celebration and commercialization of their heritage. If it is a matter of principle, thats fine, but I am highly reluctant to say that giving away tacos and sombreros at a football game was damaging in any way to the Latino community.

        Saying that I lack education and am ignorant of these issues I think is a deflection of the real debate which is why the commercialization of a Latino event illicits an apology from the administration whereas the commercialization of many other majoritarian cultures & heritages is seen as acceptable and without harm to students.

        • Re:ToCornell

          I see where you are coming from, but I rarely see Christmas events as a form of mockery. A “Christmas” photo-shoot would not seem to be offensive to me, although a “Mexican” photo contest with props of sombreros and ponchos that do not accurately represent what it is supposed to does–and no I am not Mexican nor Latino/Hispanic.

          I do think St. Patrick’s Day has been damaged by the commercialization of holidays. St. Patrick’s Day has turned into a day of binge drinking on college campuses. Also, I believe the commercialization of the holidays during the holiday season is extremely problamatic, and I would argue, is more damaging to more students overall.

          The problem I had with your original post was:

          “I have no doubt that members of the Latino community face serious inequities in certain facets of society, but I don’t think making a fuss over the use of a sombrero is the best way to demonstrate ingrained societal discrimination. Truly, there must be more serious problems to focus on”

          I found this problematic because it seems like you do not understand why this would be a big deal, and I associated that with the lack of education around “cinco de mayo” and Mexican culture in regards to the sombreros, panchos, etc. The administration admitted to being unaware of how these things can be offensive which to me sounded like ignorance.

        • Cornellstudent

          It is not the fact that they gave away tacos and sombreros that makes this offensive. First of all the “festive” food they would have served was nachos, which isn’t festive at all. What made this event offensive is the fact that there was a prize given to the person who had the best “Mexican Costume.” The marketing for this event promoted stereotypes for the mexican culture. No, wearing sombreros is not racist, but yes, it is offensive to promote these stereotypes.
          As a member of the Latino community, yes, we do face many inequalities. THis is why we needed to act on this situation. If we let our culture be mocked, even in a smaller case like this, where will it end?

      • mb1331

        Time to close EPCOT I guess,….

    • Queer Mozzie Unveils

      hi white boy, when someone from a certain group tells you that your commercialization bothers them, stop doing it. if you have questions dont bother us with them, and go educate yourself. kthanks.

      • Z2014

        You know, I don’t think attributing everything to “You are white, so you don’t understand” will solve anything. That will just make people NOT want to try to understand because 1) you imply they can’t and 2) you’re being racist yourself.

        Maybe you should take your own advice. Making use of your own logic a bit, maybe calling someone “white boy” and attributing their ignorance to that bothers them, so you should stop doing it. kthanks.

        • Queer Mozzie Unveils

          lol.

      • Gooseontheloose

        As a “white girl” I am offended by your sexist depiction.

        • Queer Mozzie Unveils

          boo boo plz

    • Cornellian

      I wouldn’t expect you to understand.

  • Z2014

    I agree especially with the fact that the costume contest is rather racist and uncalled for. That does nothing but parodies and stereotypes cultures.

    However, the use of Cinco de Mayo as a marketing tool doesn’t seem racist to me. If anything, it seems American (or specifically, capitalist). Tell me a holiday that is known in America, and I’ll tell you a holiday that is used for marketing. Whether it is other cultures’ holidays (Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Saint Patrick’s Day), a religious holidays (Christmas, Easter), or even “American” holidays (Thanksgiving, 4th of July), all holidays in the states are used and abused in marketing. I mean, I even saw 9/11 sales.

    I’m not saying it is not a problem. I’m saying that at its core, the problem isn’t racist in nature, but maybe it just a problem that we tend to turn ANY holiday into a shopping spree. Most people don’t care about the meaning of the holiday, just so long as it gives them an excuse to get off of work and go shopping.

    • Cornellstudent

      I agree. This could have been handled in a way that is not racist. The marketing could have promoted Mexican culture, instead it mocking it. If this was thought out more thoroughly, I think different decisions could have been made and and there would be no problem.

      • Francisco Rodriguez

        So that everyone is aware, according to Cornell Athletics Marketing administration, this theme was in the works for several weeks at the hands of a local radio station. When Ezra’s Army (Cornell Athletics) was approached with it, they readily latched onto it, thinking that it was acceptable and would help foster a “festive and fun time” for the game. This is a direct quote in which I have audio for…

  • Dantes

    It’s best just to ignore other cultures and celebrations. We white boys and girls can never get it right.

  • ExtremeBaker

    I believe that the underlying problem was with the contest and how it
    essentially broke down the social/cultural identity into props and
    diminished the importance of the national and cultural symbols that are the sombrero and the poncho. In response to all the other holidays, yes I agree they are commercialized but the meaning and importance of the holidays are still preserved despite all the marketing around it. Ignorance and lack of education were not the right words to describe the confusion and misunderstanding that occurred. I believe it
    was more of a lack of awareness due to the lack of communication that is held around the subject of commercialized culture/holidays/traditions. If people were more vocal on their feelings/life experiences that revolve around certain events like the Latino community was, then probably Christmas and St. Patricks Day wouldn’t have become such misrepresentations of the true reasons behind said holidays. I personally feel that the meaning behind the day Cinco de Mayo was lost in the advertisement.

  • minowe

    Did it bother no one that the Cinco de Mayo event was put on in October?

    Surely someone could make a big deal of THAT!

  • CowboyUp

    God forbid someone show up with a well made riata and any of the fine leather and silver works of art of those dashing Vaqueros. And don’t get me started on the Senoritas and Senoras.
    Do the Germans get upset if non-Germans wear lederhosen, funny hats, and walk around with huge beer steins for Oktoberfest? Nope. I don’t see anybody complaining about those dresses either. How about the Irish, the things that make them unique, and St. Patrick’s Day? Again, somewhere between three cheers and couldn’t care less. This being a university and all, Toga? Face it, some folks are going beyond ludicrous and into plaid, and some folks who should know better are making fools of themselves to accommodate them.
    If you really want to “function as a diverse community,” get the tree off your shoulder, thicken your hide, and develop a sense of humor. Learn what should upset you in a diverse community and what shouldn’t. Don’t be a stick in the mud when people show an interest in your culture and attempt to celebrate it. We don’t have to celebrate Cinco De Mayo at all, it’s not even our holiday. Americans are just being nice, and getting grief for it anyway, as usual.

    • CornellAlumni13

      The entitlement in this post is highly disturbing. Americans have a long history of “borrowing” things from minority cultures under that claim that you are “admiring” or “taking an interest” in it… but the problem is that really you make no time or effort to actually understand the culture and history of what you’re “paying homage to.” This plays out to it being disrespectful and, more often than not, leads to the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have a long and ongoing history of receiving ridicule for our culture which still feeds into discrimination and violence against us in this country. It isn’t a joke and it’s not something people will shut up about just so Americans can get continue to get away with enjoying other cultures without any of the responsibility.
      People outside of a culture love to tell people within a culture what can and cannot hurt them, what we should and should not tolerate. Last time I checked, this culture had inherent value way before Americans took notice of it and chose to exploit it.
      But no, according to you, we should be getting on our knees and thanking Cornell Athletics for their ever so “nice” attempt at inclusion because that’s totally better than nothing.

      • CowboyUp

        I didn’t tell anyone to shut up, I said to lighten up. But you saw only what you wanted to see. Nobody ridiculed or disrespected your culture by wearing sombreros or ponchos, and you’re the one that seems think there’s some question to whether your culture has “inherent value” or not. It’s always been my understanding that if ways of life had no inherent value, they wouldn’t survive to develop into cultures, but that’s beside the point.

        If anyone is ridiculing and disrespecting your culture here, starting, or reinforcing negative stereotypes, it’s you with your cultural insecurity and persecution complex. I grew up with Mexicans (along with people from everywhere else on this planet), so I know that’s not normal for your culture either. Your prejudice doesn’t match current reality anyway. If America was discriminatory and violent towards Mexicans, they’d be crashing the border to get out, not in.

        “Reinforcement of negative stereotypes,” is exactly what you’re doing when you assume I put no time or effort into understanding world history and other cultures, by the way. On the same token, people like you are putting yourself outside our culture and demanding to dictate what we will and will not tolerate, not just telling us what we should or shouldn’t. Maybe you should live up to your own proclaimed standards first, before you insist on imposing them on the rest of us.

        I didn’t suggest you thank anybody for anything, much less get on your knees to do so, but thanks for helping me make my point. Your grievance mongering mentality is so divorced from reality that you must take offense, not only where it wasn’t intended, but where it clearly doesn’t even exist.

        • CornellAlumni13

          I make the assumption that people put no time or effort into understanding world history and other cultures after they give me reason to believe so. To start off, you based off your interpretation of this incident from what you believe you understand about German and Irish cultural experiences in the U.S. The fact that you equated cultures that have long been adopted into the mainstream American culture with a minority culture that is still not safe to celebrate in certain spaces without ridicule leave your statements open to criticism on its own.
          You confirm my assumption when you imply that “growing up with Mexicans,” whatever that means, gives you more authority on the Mexican and Mexican-American U.S. experience than the words of actual Mexicans and Mexican-Americans expressing lament and disappointment in how their culture is being misrepresented and appropriated. Please, go on and tell me what the normal Mexican is supposed to feel in these situations and how just because YOU’VE never SEEN them suffer from prejudice and systemic oppression it clearly doesn’t exist. If indeed you are a student at this university then do yourself a favor and utilize its plentiful resources (courses, professors, entire academic departments) to debrief yourself on the history of the U.S. Mexican experience and fine-tune your understanding of the “current reality.” If that’s already too much effort, google works too.

  • Gooseontheloose

    “I was disappointed that this theme was stereotyping the Mexican culture of which I identify,” said Stephanie Martinez, a Cornell student

    Ivy League education? Stephanie, the correct statement should be”….. with which I identify”.

    You may identify with Mexican culture but I’ll bet you can’t speak a word of Mexican or Spanish.

    • Cornellstudent

      Speak a word of Mexican?? THIS ^ is the exact IGNORANCE that we need to fight against. Cornell claims to be a diverse campus, yet there are poeple like you who are completely ignorant to other cultures.

      • Gooseontheloose

        If our president can say that Austrian is a language spoken by Austrians, then the sarcasm that was employed in saying Stephanie doesn’t speak a word of Mexican went way over your head. Lighten up and go get a sense of humor.

      • jim

        Culture Fact of the Day:

        People from Spain think the version of Spanish spoken in Mexico is hilarious.

        • CowboyUp

          That goes both ways, my friends from Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic thought the traditional Spanish we learned in school was hilarious too. Incidentally, if you tried to hyphenate their citizenship they’d take offense.

  • NotAStereotype

    Yes, maybe this was a strange choice of an athletic marketing campaign, but I feel like it is also being blown entirely out of proportion. I’m half-hispanic and grew up in a hispanic community closer to Mexico than Ithaca is to Canada. I have family from Sabinas, Nuevo Leon. I don’t see this as offensive. Strange-yes; offensive-no. Heck I’ll even give them points for creativity.

    Could they have done it a different way, probably, but if you want offensive, then try eating the tortillas that the dining establishment passes off. They might as well be cardboard. If you want something to complain out being a ‘mockery,’ I find those repulsive. If you want offensive try a ‘enchilada’ from Loco in C-town who apparently thinks the sauce is straight tomato sauce-right out of the can. If you really want offensive, then don’t even get me started on Taco Bell.

    Someone in an earlier post raised the issue about other holidays, religious and otherwise, ‘borrowed’ by America. Hello, we’re a melting pot. That’s why we are here to begin with. I’m also Catholic. Would a Christmas in July stint raise the same issues? The dining halls have been doing a Maudi Gras theme dinner every year since I was here- that historically is a big party for the beginning of LENT that occurs down in New Orleans, a city founded by the French…

    Also, Cinco de Mayo, while it is a Mexican Independence day is already a very Americanized holiday. The Mexican culture identifies with 16 de septiembre as their equivalent to our 4th of July. For those of you that need a history lesson, it’s when Mexico won their independence from Spain. In America, we tend to celebrate Cinco de Mayo much bigger than Mexicans do.

    Also, what stereotype does the sombrero and poncho propagate? Mexicans did wear this clothing at one time. It is part of heritage. How can a heritage be shot down as stereotyping? What if there was a folklorico dress for the ladies? Still stereotyping?

    The German example and St. Patrick’s Day were also good points. People should waste their time on bigger problems and stop worrying about being so politically correct. Or then take the time to educate yourself. The world will always stereotype. It helps people get a quick broad understanding and be able to categorize people. It at least provides us with a starting point. But yes, stereotypes many times are wrong. Heck, I’m a light-complected, blonde-haired, colored-eyed, 3rd-generation Mexican female who likes to watch sports. When I go home, if I go somewhere with my dad, people mistake me for being his wife; if I go somewhere with my 18 year old brother I’m mistaken for his girlfriend; if I take my 11 year old brother somewhere I am automatically his mother. You can’t take things for what they are on the surface.

    Here’s potentially what happened, the athletics department brainstormed and quickly came up with this idea. Nachos were something that from a financial standpoint was cheap and similar to chips and queso. Then probably the photobooth thing was a way to get students involved. Stop trying to read so deeply into this. They didn’t mean any harm. They were just trying to get people to come to the football game…because stereotypically-Cornell students don’t support athletics like other colleges do…

    • DavidA11

      Cinco de Mayo is NOT “a Mexican Independence Day” though. It only marks the victory of a battle against the french.

      Also, these kinds of parties usually have other subtexts going on, not just sombreros and nachos. I know of a party a few years ago where the theme was a Mexican party. To get into the party, you had to jump over a small fence, signifying illegal immigrants. That’s downright offensive. Yet nobody who went to the party had enough of a problem with it to leave. And this is the case still.

  • Brian

    I guess St. Patrick’s Day is completely out the window. Oh wait, I’m an Irish-American and I don’t freakin care.

  • F-ing Conservative

    I love Tacos.. I love Tacos… I love Tacos.. and Burritos.. And Mexican Food.. I eat Mexican food alot, oh I also drink Tequila in Mexican restaurants that are not always owned by Latino’s.. This is stupid!

  • Ici Fritz

    QUE LASTIMA- How sad that your great university was intimidated by a few “victimas” who say their feelings were hurt by the 5 de Oct Celebracion. These “Latinos Falso” probably have never been to Mexico, only left as small children. I on the other hand live in Mexico my lawyer (abogado), doctor, and accountant would be very proud of your parade. I am so deep in Mexico that I pay water, light and property tax in Mexico.
    I am much more qualified to say what is an offence to Mexicans than these pobrecitos.

    Sorry your school has been the VICTIM, definitely not these false latinos.

    (anotar) 5 de Mayo is NOT a national holiday in Mexico.
    Si Carmen y Fancisco quiere saber mas de Mexico, avisame –
    A Gringo who knows more about Mexican Feelings than they do. Pobrecitos!

    Saludos,

    Ici

    • Francisco Rodriguez

      Ici– This is Francisco (from the article), addressing your comments. I would gladly meet you face to face to hear your thoughts in person. My e-mail address is fjr37@cornell.edu. I recommend you and I have this conversation in person so that you don’t hide behind sarcasm and smart aleck remarks. In the meantime, I’ll address some of your thoughts so that the rest of the people who see this thread can see my response…

      Actually, this is directly related to Cornell Athletics Marketing (and Ezra’s Army) and how the administration there wants to only take the blame for letting this get out to the public rather than directly addressing the ignorance that was behind the situation. As a side note, I’m not using the term ‘ignorance’ in an inherently negative way, I understand that many people at Cornell (and similar universities) would not initially understand how this is a problem. Your comment that the ‘university’ was intimidated is irrelevant; Cornell administration’s acknowledgement of this situation was rightfully warranted given that Athletics is such an institutionalized part of the university.

      To address the ignorance behind your comment, “Latinos Falso,” it’s important to know that it wasn’t only Latino/Hispanic students who were offended here. We were speaking on behalf of all students who were offended (including the students who were embarrassed as a result of this) and the comments on this thread clearly demonstrate that you don’t have to be Latino to have been affected here.

      It was unnecessary and crass for you to make judgment calls on any of our direct ties to Mexico. For your understanding (since you seem so concerned with it), I was born and raised in Houston, and so was my entire family. The fact that my roots are based in the U.S. does not mean that I shouldn’t have a say in this.

      Where in this article did anyone claim that 5 de mayo is a “national” holiday? Maybe if you read this a bit more carefully, your comments wouldn’t have been so asinine.

      Lastly, yes, I would be GLAD to know more about your take on Mexico, Ici. My e-mail address is above, so I would appreciate if you contacted me directly… That is unless you want to be like a bunch of others who neglect to educate themselves around other perspectives on this issue, sweeping it under the rug until it embarrasses the university again…

  • Sarah P.

    I understand that the cultural meaning of Cinco de Mayo has been lost by America’s commercialization of the date. However, what I find more problematic is that people cannot differentiate between the original culture and what America has twisted the event to be. You can’t have a dress like a ‘Mexican’ photo contest and expect people to be okay with it. Why? Because there is a difference between a Mexican from Mexico and a Mexican-American in America. And because, just like any other cultural group, not all Mexicans/Mexican-Americans are the same. Some of us are have more european roots, indigenous roots, speak Spanish fluently, or don’t. There is so much diversity within Mexican culture that it is inappropriate think there can only be one representation.

    It simply isn’t fitting that a mainstream group pick and choose what aspects of a marginalized group are appealing and use these features to promote stereotypes that do not represent them in any shape or form.

  • headbetch

    what is meant by ‘the university’? obviously the university as a whole should be held accountable to ensure that these things don’t happen, but the use of ‘the university’ seems very abstracted, and I think the more appropriate department to reference would be the athletic marketing team.

  • trevor b

    Classic overly dramatic Cornell ‘writers’ blowing things out of proportion.
    #RELAX. #SENSATIONALTITLESTOSELLPAPERS