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Will Disney's "Chihuahua" marketing end up in the doghouse?

September 18, 2008 |  1:50 pm


For months now, emblazoned on billboards and buses around Los Angeles, ads for the upcoming Disney movie  "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" have begged for your attention.

Already this week, we told you about one concern some dog lovers have over the film: Whenever a Chihuahua has been featured in entertainment in the past (or really any adoptable animal -- "101 Dalmatians," anyone?), it’s been followed by a spike in adoption, which then later translates into more dogs put up for adoption by people who didn’t realize what they were getting into.

But the film, which isn't even out for another month, is also generating another kind of controversy.

Disney is hoping for a good turnout after the film's release Oct. 3, especially with the Latino audience. Although U.S. Census Bureau figures show that Beverly Hills is only 12% Latino, that percentage in Los Angeles County is much higher, and movie executives are hoping that the voices behind the dogs in the film -- George Lopez, Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin and Andy Garcia -- will connect with Latinos.

Many in the entertainment industry try to cater to the Latino market, using language, celebrities and music central to the culture to attract attention. Examples include the much-hyped "Latin explosion" in  pop music in the late 1990s, with Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, and the launching over the years of more bilingual publications or Spanish-language versions of magazines such as People or Cosmopolitan.

But marketing to today's U.S.-born Latinos is a sensitive issue, and the  "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" campaign may stir up some tension, The Times' Josh Friedman writes:

Walt Disney Pictures is making a lot of marketing noise with its upcoming "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," a live-action comedy about a pampered purebred that gets lost in Mexico....

Early tracking is solid but not stellar among general moviegoers -- Sony Pictures' teen hipster romantic comedy "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," which opens on the same weekend, has lower awareness but higher interest levels. But kids and moms, the demographics that turn talking-animal flicks like "Alvin and the Chipmunks" into hits, are keen on it.

Latinos, who tend to be among the most avid moviegoing groups in the U.S., could give "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" a huge boost, especially in urban markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago. According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, Latinos saw an average of 10.8 movies in 2007, compared with 7.9 for Caucasians and 7.8 for African Americans.

But some think Disney's marketing could also spark a backlash.

"The movie's generalizations about Hispanics and its stereotypical depictions of Mexicans will not get a positive response from most of the 46 million Hispanics living in the U.S.," said Anton Diego, president of EveryMundo Inc., a marketing firm that helps businesses target Latinos online.

The trailer, Diego notes, opens with the voice of a Chihuahua called Papi describing how his descendants fought alongside Aztec soldiers, then pans to footage of Machu Picchu in Peru -- a symbol of the Incan Empire located on a different continent. The music in the trailer is mambo, which originated in Cuba, he adds.

A viral video campaign (with no mention of Disney or the movie title, in today's fashionable stealth style) has elicited groans for its portrayal of Chihuahuas as revolutionaries declaring "No mas!" to being carried in purses -- but "Mas!" to all-you-can-eat taco bars.

Disney declined to comment on the movie's marketing.

Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said he saw two screenings of the completed film after hearing a complaint about the project and found nothing offensive.

"It's not supposed to ignite the world with social consciousness, but this is a clean, entertaining picture with an all-star cast that brings the Latino presence to a whole new height," Nogales said. "It's a marvelous little film that is going to send everybody off to buy their own Chihuahuas."

Maybe the Taco Bell Chihuahua inspired Disney.

Or, maybe, the effort to target Latinos will prove to have been unnecessary. Everyone may want to see this movie. In Los Angeles, for example, Chihuahuas are the most popular breed of dog ... among everyone.

-- Francisco Vara-Orta

Photo: Daniel Daza/Disney Enterprises Inc.

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