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The Bootleg Files: The Frito Bandito Commercials

BOOTLEG FILES 629: “The Frito Bandito Commercials” (1967-71 television advertising campaign).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No afterlife for politically incorrect commercials.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: We’ll see that border wall first.

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, he flabbergasted many people with this impolite description of Mexicans: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Oddly, Trump did not cite the larcenous Mexican habit of robbing people of their Fritos corn chips. Well, the entire Mexican nation cannot be blamed for that larcenous behavior, but at least one character claiming Mexican heritage was guilty of that unlikely offense.

If you’re of a certain age, you will recall the ubiquitous presence of the Frito Bandito on television. The animated figure offered an exaggerated stereotype of a Mexican bandit, complete with sombrero, handlebar mustache and an open display of guns. However, as his name would suggest, the Frito Bandito was only interested in robbing people of their Fritos corn chips. After all, why buy a snack when you can use the threat of violence to snatch them from some silly gringo?

The Frito Bandito was created in 1967 by the Foote, Cone & Belding Agency on behalf of Frito-Lay Inc. The agency hired animation icon Tex Avery to design the character. Avery, who turned out masterworks of animated lunacy for Warner Bros. and MGM in the 1930s and 1940s, saw his career shrank by the 1960s to doing television commercial animation. Avery’s initial concept of the Frito Bandito was a diminutive and unsavory hombre with greasy hair, razor stubble and a gold tooth. Mel Blanc, who used a quasi-Mexican voice to play the deadpan monosyllabic sarape-clad Sy on Jack Benny’s show and to give life to the Speedy Gonzales animated character, was brought in to voice the Frito Bandito.

The campaign also featured a theme song for the Frito Bandito. Using the melody of beloved folk tune “Cielto Lindo,” new English lyrics were created for Blanc’s Frito Bandito to croon: “Ay, ay, ay, ay! oh, I am dee Frito Bandito. I like Fritos corn chips, I love them, I do. I want Fritos corn chips. I’ll get them, from you. Ay, ay, ay, ay, oh, I am the Frito Bandito. Give me Fritos corn chips and I’ll be your friend. The Frito Bandito you must not offend.”

The running gag of the campaign was having the Frito Bandito draw his guns to obtain his desired bounty from defenseless snack lovers. In one commercial, the bandit offers silver and then gold for the purchase of corn chips, but when he is rebuffed he flashes a demonic smile and offers lead – with his guns pointed at his intended victim.

In another commercial, the bandit asks the viewing audience to raise their right hands if they possess Fritos. After counting, bandit slyly demands that the audience also raise their left hands while he takes out his gun in preparation for a hold-up.

Most audiences reacted positively to the Frito Bandito’s antics, and merchandising was created using the Frito Bandito character. But not everyone was amused: The National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (NMAADC) issued loud protests that the character defamed Mexicans and perpetuated unpleasant stereotypes. Frito-Lay pushed back against these protests, going so far as to commission a poll of Mexican-Americans that supposedly showed 85 percent of respondents loved the character while 8 percent were offended.

Still, Frito-Lay realized that it could tone down the more outlandish aspects of the character. A new animation style offered a cleaner-looking character, and the threat of gunfire was replaced with more comic attempts to lure Fritos into the bandit’s possession. One commercial had the Frito Bandito doing a magic act where an audience deposited their snacks on the stage, with the bandit covering the treats with a cape. The magic: with the laying on of the cape, he turned the audience’s Fritos into his own. In another spot, the bandit turned up on the moon and told visiting Apollo astronauts that he was the parking attendant – and they needed to deposit one bag of Fritos into his parking meter if they wanted to keep their lunar craft on the moon’s surface.

By January, 1971, the NMAADC joined other advocacy groups in a $610 million lawsuit against Frito-Lay for “malicious defamation” of their ethnic group – the sum was based on $100 for every American of Mexican descent. The company caved in and the campaign was dropped.

But was the Frito Bandito really a slur against Mexican Americans? At the time, one could understand the unhappiness that this demographic was experiencing. When African Americans and Native Americans were successfully agitating for a more intelligent portrayal of their communities in films and televisions, the perpetuation of a stereotype against Mexican Americans seemed out of place.

On the other hand, the Frito Bandito was a harmless silly-dumb joke. After all, why would anyone want to go to such extremes to gain a cheap bag of corn chips? The threat of violence was buffoonish, and no one ever got injured because of the Frito Bandito’s guns.

In today’s politically correct climate, the Frito Bandito is not about to get rousing welcome. And while it is unlikely to see a home entertainment anthology of the four-year advertising campaign, second- and third-generation dupes of the old commercials can be found on YouTube. If anything, they represent a healthy but guilty laugh from a bygone era.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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