MY BITTERSWEET LOVE AFFAIR WITH CONGUITOS.
How does one reconcile a candy that he loves with a branding campaign that he shouldn’t? Well...that’s my dilemma with the Spanish candy, Conguitos.
Conguitos are nothing more than chocolate-covered peanuts. That may not seem revolutionary. Chocolate-covered peanuts are, after all, well-represented in the candy universe.
But I find Conguitos to be irresistible! Perhaps it’s because the chocolate isn’t too sweet. Perhaps it’s because the peanuts are remarkably crunchy. Or perhaps it’s because the level of my gluttony is disproportionate to that of my body weight. Whatever the reason, I devour Conguitos with the ferocity of a UIUC fratboy on a microwaved burrito-run.
What? You’re still not sure what Conguitos are? Then let me give you a hint. They are those candies featuring the cartoon of a pudgy, full-lipped Pygmy on the bag.
“Ahhhh!” you shout. “THOSE Conguitos!”
Yes, THOSE Conguitos. Now you understand my dilemma. The candy is brilliant, but the packaging is—shall we say—likely to evoke different responses from different consumers.
Amusing throwback to a simpler, more innocent era? Or blatantly racist? Sorry, but I’m not here to pass judgement. Each person must decide for himself.
I will say, however, that my reaction upon seeing a bag of Conguitos for the first time was one of disbelief. Why? Because if these candies were placed on a store shelf in my home country (the US), a tsunami of angry protestors, opportunistic politicians and salivating Fox News cameramen would engulf that store’s parking lot before the day’s first employee coffee break. But that’s the US. Spain is obviously different, and I was intrigued as to why.
So I went to Conguitos’s corporate website to brush-up on the history of this candy that I love so much. And I learned that Conguitos have been around for more than forty years—as has its featured cartoon character, which the website refers to as “our mascot.” [Yikes! I can feel the US-based readers squirming again.]
The website goes on to mention that, “our mascot has also evolved and slightly changed in order to adapt to the present day.” My God! I wonder what he looked like in the original artist’s rendering?
In 2000, a white-chocolate version of Conguitos was launched. I don’t know if this was done in an effort to appear even-handed or because the market demanded the new flavor. I can tell you, however, that the “mascot” for the white-chocolate version looks, quite disturbingly, like the fruit of a coital relationship between the original Conguitos character and 1970’s rock star Edgar Winter.
With this historical context in hand, I began to formulate a theory as to why the brand has endured. But I needed to support it with a bit of primary research. So I sat down to lunch with a colleague in Madrid. She is a thirty-something Spanish woman—well-travelled, highly-educated, politically-active and unafraid to speak her mind. I asked whether she found the Conguitos cartoon...odd? [Confused silence.] Perhaps even a bit...offensive?
She crinkled her brow and shrugged her shoulders. “Of course not.”
But it was more than a mere, “Of course not.” It was the type of incredulous “Of course not” that I’d expect to receive upon asking if it were, perhaps, OK to attend her grandmother’s funeral while dressed as Wonder Woman.
Then she asked why?
“Well,” I continued, “it seems to me that Spain’s growing wave of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa might find that little guy to be a bit insulting.”
She stared-off into the distance for a moment and then said, “Oh! I never really thought about it. I mean...that Conguitos cartoon has been around since before I was born.”
Which is exactly what I suspected. The Conguitos character is the Iberian equivalent of the Aunt Jemima Waffle lady in the US—an image that might immediately strike an outsider as being provactive, but is so thoroughly engrained in the culture that it’s all-but invisible to the natives.
But as I said earlier, I’m not here to pass judgement. And despite my uneasiness with the branding, I’m certainly not going to stop eating Conguitos. To be honest...I’d eat them even if the product were renamed “Ameriquitos” and featured the caricature of a morbidly-obese, sunburned tourist wearing khaki shorts, boat shoes without socks and a baseball cap turned backwards.
In my candy universe, few things transcend the pleasures of a chocolate-covered peanut.