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“We’re Hispanics…We’re cool by default” Billboard Needs a Point of View

A billboard put up by Washington state’s Department of Health recently drew criticism for depicting a group of Hispanic children with the words:

“We don’t need pot to have fun. We’re Hispanics…We’re cool by default.”

Some called it tone-deaf, others considered it offensive.

My first thought as a Hispanic communicator was that there simply had to be a better way to craft this campaign, one with a stronger point of view that doesn’t inadvertently exclude kids of other ethnic groups.

Saying that Hispanic kids don’t need drugs because they’re cool “by default” implies that other kids aren’t cool. Imagine a young Asian American kid who sees this billboard – she might think “What? I do drugs because I’m not cool?”

(The billboard also implies, ironically, that drugs are cool. The message is basically “You don’t need this drug that makes you cool because you’re already cool.”)

Hispanic kids are cool, sure. But that’s an oversimplification that doesn’t really address the complex problem of drug use among Hispanic teens in a meaningful way. The message would be stronger if it were tailored for the Hispanic community in a way that’s less exclusive and more specific, which is admittedly a fine line to walk.

Hispanics have a rich culture with many elements to draw from – music, art, literature, sports, food. Incorporating a unique cultural element into the campaign could have established an ethos in it that went beyond being cool. It would have been more powerful.

The agency probably had nothing but good intentions. But as communicators, we have to be responsible when putting messages into the world. Part of that responsibility means avoiding low-hanging fruit and knowing your audience. It also means being thoughtful about the medium in which you package your campaign.

Billboards reach a large and scattered audience. So, even though the agency said it got no negative feedback from the Hispanic community before going ahead with the billboard, it would have been worth considering all the other people this campaign was going to reach.

A digital campaign, however, might not have caused these problems if it were narrowly targeted toward Hispanics. After all, we know that Hispanics are digital-forward – they use and own smartphones more than other Americans, and they’re hyper-connected on social.

I think it’s important to keep these things in mind given the social and political climate today. Instead of contributing, intentionally or not, to the forces trying to divide people in the country, we should aim for messages that unite. We could use it now more than ever in the Hispanic community.

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