THE FRITO BANDITOOriginal Medium: TV commercial animation
First Appeared: 1967
Creator: Tex Avery
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called Dinglehoofer und His Dog, about a German immigrant; Mickey Finn could be unabashedly Irish; and Abie the Agent could be a Jewish stereotype from head to toe. Even as broad-stroked a caricature as Pore Lil Mose could flourish. That started to change in the decades following World War II. With few exceptions (such as the rural Southern Americans pilloried as ignorant near-savages in, for example, Punkin' Puss & Mushmouse), the process was complete by the 1970s. The Frito Bandito, who came along just as this trend was approaching its culmination, could be seen as a microcosm of the country's evolving treatment of its minorities.
The Frito Bandito was a commercial spokestoon, advertising Frito Corn Chips, a product of Frito-Lay Inc. He first appeared in 1967. Officially, he was created by the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding Communications. But the individual behind him was the legendary cartoon man Tex Avery, whose stellar credits include Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The Bandito's voice, too, was done by the Bugs/Daffy voice man, Mel Blanc, who also did Marvin the Martian, Sad Sack, and many, many others.
He was a Mexican bandit, of the type familiar to American movie audiences since the days of Pancho Villa. He wore a huge sombrero, had a handlebar moustache (and didn't shave the rest of his face very regularly), and brandished a pistol in each hand, which he reloaded from a pair of bandoleras that crossed his chest. He was cheerful and chatty with his victims, singing "Ai-yai-yai-yai! Oh, I am the Frito Bandito!" to the tune of the traditional Mexican favorite "Cielito Lindo". But Fritos were all he ever stole. The message in the voice-over was that viewers should buy an extra bag of Fritos and stash it where other family members won't find it, because there might be a Frito Bandito in your house.
Protests were heard almost immediately from advocacy groups such as The National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (NMAADC). In fact, within a couple of years, The Frito Bandito was a fairly hot topic in the news. Usually, corporations, having no interest in alienating consumers, cave in easily to such unwelcome publicity, but Frito-Lay took the point of view that these were merely pressure groups flexing their political muscles, and didn't reflect the views of most Mexican-Americans. To bolster that point of view, the company sponsored a poll which demonstrated 85% support for the character within that demographic, as opposed to a mere 8% who found him offensive.
They did make some concessions — no more pistols and not as thick an accent; and he switched from outright theft to getting his Fritos through guile and deception. He did less leering and grimacing and more friendly smiling, and became more fastidious about beard stubble. They even whited out his gold tooth.
But this didn't satisfy the protestors, who organized boycotts, forced TV stations to give them equal air time to voice their complaints, and threatened to sic the Federal Communications Commission on anyone that showed Frito Bandito commercials. Finally, during January, 1971, NMAADC, in conjunction with other such groups, launched a $610 million lawsuit ($100 for each American of Mexican descent) for "malicious defamation" of their ethnicity.
The last tactic worked. That very year, The Frito Bandito was replaced by The Muncha Bunch, and shortly afterward by a new toon called W.C. Frito. Apparently, Frito-Lay expected fewer headaches from an actor who was safely dead.