How Che Guevara became a commodified commercial brand.

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May 1, 2023 | Culture, Politics

Hasta siempre, comandante.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader who became a major figure of the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. As a leading theorist and tactician of guerrilla warfare, Guevara helped Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba in 1959.

After the revolution, Guevara served as a senior figure in Castro’s government, later focusing on fomenting revolution and armed struggle across Latin America and Africa. His vision was to create a continent-wide socialist revolution to overthrow capitalist imperialism and neocolonialism. However, he became disillusioned with the Soviet Union’s brand of socialism and viewed it as deviating from Marxist ideals.

Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to spearhead communist revolutions, first unsuccessfully in Congo-Kinshasa and later in Bolivia, where he was captured and executed by the Bolivian army in 1967, with the support of the CIA. Despite his death, in the ensuing years Guevara became a towering icon of revolution and anti-imperialist struggle. His posthumous memoir The Bolivian Diary became a bestseller, and his iconic image—derived from a 1960 photo by Alberto Korda of him with long hair and wearing a beret with a star—became among the decade’s most ubiquitously reproduced visual symbols of rebellion.

The irony is that while Guevara represented militant anti-capitalism and resistance to U.S. hegemony, his image ended up being commodified and commercialized on an array of consumer products, from T-shirts and posters to vodka bottles and bikinis, generating substantial profits for capitalist companies. The image became a logo to sell rebellion and radical chic to the masses.

This began in 1968, when Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli’s advertising agency started printing posters of Korda’s iconic photo of Guevara. Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick then stylized the Korda photo in multiple colored prints that became ubiquitous counterculture symbols of the era, seen at protests and college dorms.

By the 1980s and 1990s, Guevara’s image started appearing on a vast range of mass-market consumer items as his counterculture popularity merged with corporate desire for profits. From a political perspective, the use of his image to sell products epitomized capitalist exploitation of revolutionary symbols for commercial gain. Critics saw it as representing the incorporation and neutering of radicalism by capitalist consumerism.

Major examples of companies using his image include Smirnoff vodka in 1987, Swatch in 1995, Mercedes-Benz in 1997, and the Japanese toy company Marmit producing millions of Guevara action figures in 1998. Even years after his death, his image continued being used for commercial branding, as recently as Urban Outfitters selling “Che” T-shirts in 2012.

The commodification of Guevara represented a sanitizing of his revolutionary legacy and the triumph of commercial imperatives over political substance. It exemplified pop culture’s ability to strip even the most radical icons of their original political meanings and repurpose them for economic gain. While his image was being used to sell products promoting values counter to his beliefs, Guevara himself likely would have seen the irony of capitalism transforming him into a profitable symbol of anti-capitalism.

So what?

As a brand that wants to authentically engage with the Hispanic market, it is imperative that you do not succumb to this sanitization of cultural ideals.

A common mistake known as Hispandering is what will cause a significant Hispanic sector with purchase power to distance themselves from your brand as they don’t want to feel taken advantage of just for their hard earned money.

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