Class and Color Blindness in Mexican Consumer Segmentation

Advertisement from upscale department store in Mexico City
Advertisement from upscale department store in Mexico City

Posted by Marcel Rosa-Salas – doctoral student in Sociocultural Anthropology  at NYU

The trade organization responsible for developing los niveles socioeconomicos, the Mexican approach to consumer segmentation, takes inspiration from French and British consumer segmentation models. Whereas traditional consumer segmentation models in the United States rely more explicitly on conceptions of race, several global ad agencies have their own based entirely on class status. What distinguishes class-based consumer segmentation in Mexico is the particular social, cultural, economic and political dynamics that maintain a staunch commitment to color blindness. This commitment shapes the way this socioeconomic stratification looks as well as the way it is discussed by marketers in Mexico.

Class status is a key factor shaping everyday life in Mexico. As one marketer stated “Mexico has world class billionaires and world class poor people.” The vast income inequality that exists in Mexico is the primary explanation that most of my interlocutors provided as to why socioeconomic segmentation exists so stringently for marketing in the country. Strategy for creating an advertising campaign is largely based on the price point of what’s being sold. One advertising executive discussed how disparate levels of access to credit distinguish the way class levels are imagined in Mexican versus American marketing practice. Whereas poor Americans might have more ready access to credit cards and loans, which might offer them the opportunity to consume goods outside their income bracket, poor Mexicans don’t necessarily have access to credit in the same way. Thus, poor people are restricted to the goods and services within their socioeconomic bracket. I learned that only recently have some larger department stores begun to provide extended layaway plans to low income consumers, offering them the option to pay in installments for high-priced goods, sometimes for nearly a year.

Advertisement from upper middle class department store in Mexico City
Advertisement from upper middle class department store in Mexico City. Who is represented in this ad?

When it comes to Mexico’s ever shrinking middle class, I learned that marketers are directly involved in promoting the maintenance of class boundaries, or merely the illusion of such. For the B and C level consumers, their constant struggle is in maintaining this middle class status. One of my informants told me that outside of price point, product design is a key indicator of the socioeconomic target for a particular commodity. He provided an example of a vitamin supplement his company is marketing to a C level consumer. While the price point indicates a middle class demographic, the clean design aesthetic is a higher status feature that lends the product a more aspirational quality. By marketing mid-level goods in ostensibly upper-level trappings, these kinds of socioeconomic consumer segmentation practices offer the Mexican middle class an illusion of class mobility at a time when the very opposite is occurring.

What I remain most interested in from this research was what went unsaid by the marketers, especially as it related to my original interest, race and ethnicity in consumer segmentation. When I asked my interlocutors about the relationship between race and class in Mexico, I was consistently met with replies that race or ethnicity isn’t really an issue that figures prominently for identity in the country. As I learned from Christina Sue’s ethnography, Land of the Cosmic Race, contemporary race politics in Mexico have been in large part been shaped by a post-revolution national ideology “geared toward fostering nationalist sentiment, obliterating internal perceptions of racial inequality, and situating Mexico among the league of modern nations,” (2). Sue argues that this nationality ideology “exalt[s] Mexico’s mestizo (mixed-race) population, declare[s] Mexico free from racism, and erase[s] blackness from the image of the Mexican nation,” (2). This sentiment was echoed in advertisements I saw near my apartment and plastered throughout metro stations. I almost exclusively saw white, light or fair skinned models in ads, and virtually no dark skinned or indigenous looking models. In no way did these advertisements match the panoply of skin tones and ethnic markers I saw while walking down Mexico City’s streets.

I think the responses of my interlocutors indicate the obvious point, namely, that because of their different histories with colonialism, race and ethnicity as social constructs do not function in the United States as they do in Mexico. Multicultural marketing exists in the United States because race and ethnic categorizations figure much more explicitly in how people self identify and are identified by governmental institutions like the Census. For Mexico’s national statistics organization, the INEGI, (from which a great deal of consumer research gets their information), data on race and ethnicity are not collected. Through my research on consumer segmentation in Mexico, I learned more about the ways in which marketing industry practices are shaped by broader societal frameworks in a context outside of my U.S. field site. Furthermore, for my future field work I will be more attuned to paying just as much attention to what is not said by interviewees as what is said.

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