October 6, 2013

Cornell Athletics Apologizes for ‘Culturally Insensitive’ Marketing Campaign

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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.