Che Guevara’s advertising revolution

A revolutionary ends up on Madison Avenue

Adrian Perez is the publisher of Latino Journal.

My son put up a large poster of Che Guevara on the wall in his room, a gift from one of his friends. The poster brought back memories of my college days in the early ’70s, when I was active with a student group called “Movimento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.”

Times have changed since those days, so why was my son interested in Che? There seems to be significant growth in Che’s popularity among youth from all races. Why is Che so important to today’s youth in America, and why is his image so popular?

Born in Argentina in 1928, Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna joined Fidel Castro in 1954 in Mexico, where they planned the overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba. Che served as tactical leader to Castro during the Cuban revolution, which lasted from 1956 to 1959.

In 1965, he left Cuba to train guerrilla fighters in the Congo and later in Bolivia. He was killed in the Bolivian jungle in October 1967. Today, Che’s image adorns many key locations throughout Cuba; his contributions to promote Marxism and denounce capitalism are well noted and idolized by many Cubans, young and old.

Alberto (Diaz Gutierrez) Korda, photographer and journalist, captured the famous image we know from posters in 1960, as an angry Che spoke to the thousands who had gathered to eulogize dozens killed in the bombing of a Belgian cargo ship filled with munitions in a Cuban port and to condemn their killers. Little did Korda know that his photo would take a life of its own or, more ironically, that it would become a money-making fashion statement on tourist’s souvenirs.

Yes, even Cuba uses Che’s image on lighters, towels, etc., to promote tourism.

Here in the United States, Che’s image can be found on everything from T-shirts to tattoos. It’s cool to have the logo on your person. Rap artist Jay-Z sported a T-shirt with the late Marxist’s image. Network television has also capitalized on Che’s popularity among youth when, in an episode of The Simpsons, Homer displayed a tattoo of Che on his arm.

Madison Avenue hasn’t shied away from using Che’s image, either; he’s been used to promote Converse tennis shoes and “mojitos” made with Smirnoff Vodka (that ad created such uproar in Cuba that it generated a lawsuit). And, of course, who can forget the little Chihuahua dog that wore a Che-style hat and neckwear in those Taco Bell commercials?

Now, Steven Soderbergh is working on a two-part bio-pic of Che’s life, The Argentine and Guerrilla, both starring the great Latino actor Benicio Del Toro. But these films will also provide more opportunities to see Che’s image as logo: new posters, T-shirts and other promotional gizmos.

Forty years after his death, Che has revolutionized Madison Avenue, his image fueling our logo-driven society. In my college days, his image meant we needed “change” in our social and political structures. Among today’s youth, it is simply stylin’.