On January 20, 2020, Macmillan published the novel “American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins. Battled over by many publishers, it was positioned to be one of the tentpole books of the year. On January 21, Oprah announced it as the selection for her book club. Time magazine compared it to Iliad and Odyssey! The book was widely and favorably reviewed. For a moment.
All too quickly — and much to the trade’s surprise (as well as Oprah’s) — Latinos began to assail the book. Even as the author declared that she had written the book to shine a light on the under-represented Latino population, she was lambasted for shallow stereotyping. The backlash has been forceful enough that the publisher cut short the author’s book tour.
The object of this post is less to comment on the novel and more to illustrate how crucial authenticity is when reaching out to the Hispanic market. The American Dirt debacle is relevant to marketing … because publishing on this scale is largely a marketing endeavor. Signing fees, distribution, best-seller expectations, movie rights and more are driven by marketing goals and investments as much as by literary merit. (If you wish to dive into the controversy, feel free to explore any of the links provided below.)
Here is the lesson of this post: One of the universal truths of the Hispanic community is that its members care deeply about being understood and respected. Building relationships is central to the Hispanic culture; and then being true to those relationships. Trust is never taken for granted. Trust comes first. And once established, violation can exact an enduring cost.
For brands who see the promise of the Hispanic audience, the implications are really quite simple: make assumptions about the Hispanic target at your own risk. Respect your audience enough to truly get to know them. Acting on stereotype can be a terminal mistake. Case in point: American Dirt.
Regardless of how good a brand’s intentions, that brand will pay a price if its actions are not rooted in genuine cultural insight.
Even the cultural arbiter Oprah made a mistake here. You’ve got to do your homework before you take a leap into any culture. This investment is especially true when approaching the Latino audience.
At Puente we often counsel brands with this friendly admonition: “You’ve got to get your house in order before you invite Latinos in.” Let’s say you are a bank about to open a branch in an area that boasts a significant Latino population. Sure, you could translate your general market collateral into Spanish and call it done; you might even get away with it. Buy you need to do more. You’ll want to be sure your staff is prepared culturally and linguistically to truly welcome the Latino prospect.
A brand’s marketing is an invitation. And that invitation in Spanish is an indication that there is an understanding where the Latino audience comes from, not just geographically, but culturally. If you fail to follow through or you appear unprepared, you will come off as disingenuous and may alienate that prospect and her extended family. Word travels fast and referrals are cherished — back to that point about trust – breaking it can exact an enduring cost. ¡Cuídate!
Other links related to the American Dirt controversy:
Jeanine Cummins’ ‘American Dirt’ Is a Harrowing Tale of Immigration, Family and Memory
Writing About the Border Crisis, Hoping to Break Down Wall
“It’s clear that we need to have a different kind of conversation about American Dirt and we welcome everyone’s thoughts and opinions in our community.”
Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature
‘American Dirt’ Is Proof the Publishing Industry Is Broken
Eva Longoria Has Some THOUGHTS About the Oprah Book Club Controversy