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Latino Leader Calls for Taco Bell Boycott

Activism: Chihuahua ads are ethnically degrading, he says. Restaurant firm and Jack in the Box, also targeted, say the commercials were tested for racial sensitivity.

July 14, 1998|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The leader of a coalition of 50 Latino groups on Monday called for a boycott against Taco Bell and Jack in the Box for what he sees as ethnically offensive television commercials that use a Chihuahua that speaks Spanish.

"To equate a dog with an entire ethnic population is outrageous, despicable, demeaning and degrading," said Mario Obledo, president of the Sacramento-based California Coalition of Hispanic Organizations and former state secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Obledo, a noted civil rights activist, said that he has been offended by the commercials, which have become immensely popular. Last month, Cuban Americans in Florida expressed similar sentiments when Taco Bell's Chihuahua sported a beret, a snide reference, they believed, to revolutionary leader Che Guevara.

"We are giving both Taco Bell and Jack in the Box 30 days to stop airing the commercials," Obledo said. "If they don't, we're going to be isolating and picketing Taco Bell and Jack in the Box restaurants."

A spokesman for Irvine-based Taco Bell Corp. said the commercials with the now famous Chihuahua were aired only after the company conducted market testing for racial sensitivity.

"We've done an awful lot of testing with our advertising, including focus groups with Hispanic consumers," said Peter Stack, vice president of public relations for the company. "No ad we run is aired before it is extensively tested and proved that it works, and we test for any sensitivities. The response for the Chihuahua commercial was overwhelmingly positive.

"We're not ignoring any dialogue about this, as long as it is done in a civil way and is constructive."

Shirley Gines, a spokeswoman for San Diego-based Foodmaker Inc., the parent corporation of Jack in the Box, said her company also did extensive testing before airing what she described as a parody of Taco Bell's successful commercial.

"Our ad featuring a Chihuahua was meant to be a humorous parody of a Taco Bell ad and its use of a Chihuahua as spokesdog," Gines said. "Of course, we had no intention of disparaging any groups with this ad."

The commercial for Jack in the Box was scheduled to air through July 26. The company has no intention of airing it after that, she added.

Taco Bell has nearly 7,000 stores in the United States, and Jack in the Box has 1,350. The two companies are unrelated.

This marks the second time in recent months that Obledo, 66, has taken a high-profile stand on an issue affecting the Latino community. He recently spoke out against a billboard put up by the Orange County-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform that declared California "The Illegal Immigration State."

The billboard was later taken down by an advertising company after Obledo and other Latino activists threatened to remove it themselves.

In a telephone interview Monday, Obledo said that he would also call for a labor strike if either Taco Bell or Jack in the Box continued to air the commercials. He said he did not ask the coalition whether it would support a boycott, but used his authority as coalition president.

"We didn't take a vote. I'm an absolute dictator," Obledo said. "If you start clearing things with people you'll never get it done. . . . I don't know how successful we're going to be, but I believe these commercials are beyond good taste."

Gil Flores, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights organization, said his state membership supports Obledo and the potential boycott.

"LULAC will fight racism whenever it appears, and we will continue to eradicate it by whatever means necessary," Flores said. "TV ads which show disrespect and a lack of dignity against our ethnic group have no place on the air or in America."

But not all LULAC members agreed.

Zeke Hernandez, Orange County's LULAC district director, said he isn't offended by the commercials. In addition, Hernandez said that a resolution to boycott the two corporations failed miserably at LULAC's recent national convention in Dallas.

"I don't see [the ads] as demeaning or belittling our community, and that is a position that the Santa Ana LULAC chapter has taken. We believe it's not discriminatory in nature."

In fact, Hernandez said, the use of Spanish in commercials by corporate America can only encourage other corporations to pay more attention to the segment of the population that speaks Spanish.

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