Kendall Jenner has swapped her Pepsi for her very own beverage brand: 818 Tequila.
The 25-year-old model’s latest business venture, a new brand of “best-tasting tequila,” was met with backlash from the Latinx and Mexican-American communities. The criticism? Another white celebrity cashing in on an industry and culture to which she has no proximity.
“There are so many other authentic, woman-owned tequila companies to (choose) from,” wrote a Twitter user. “Don’t support the exploitation of our culture and resources.”
But supporters argue Jenner is not the first non-Latinx or white celebrity to create a tequila brand, and she’s being unfairly criticized. George Clooney (Casamigos), Nick Jonas (Villa One), Dwayne The Rock Johnson (Teremana Tequila), AC/DC (Thunderstruck Tequila), LeBron James (Lobos 1707) and more have all gotten into the tequila game.
What sets Jenner apart from the rest, however, is her – and her family’s – murky history of profiting off of other cultures and repeatedly being accused of cultural appropriation.
One user tweeted: “…leave it to Kendall to be as tone deaf as possible, this is so offensive. Modeling that chic migrant worker look for her tequila brand, watch her cry and say she didn’t know later on for the 100th time.” Another user replied to the original tweet, adding that people should keep the “same energy for all the celeb men” who have also ventured into the business.
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Reps for Jenner and the 818 Tequila team declined to comment.
The model’s foray into the tequila industry isn’t the first time critics have discussed the cultural and economic implications of celebrity-backed liquor companies.
Andy Coronado, who co-owns La Gritona Tequila with businesswoman Melly Barajas Cárdenas, says celebrity tequila companies “pull away resources from smaller brands that need access to agave,” the plant from which tequila is made and takes roughly seven years to reach maturity for harvest.
“It is a commodity and it boosts the prices,” he adds. “It leaves the rest of the tequila world to trying to … survive.”
Barajas Cárdenas says that while she’s not familiar with Jenner, she believes that celebrities creating their own tequila is more indicative of the globalization of the drink.
“If you say tequila, you immediately think about Mexico,” she says, in an interview conducted in Spanish. “I would love for it to be known all over the world by whoever because although an American creates their own brand and whether you like it or not, Mexico also sees that money because there’s no other country where it can be produced.”
But the distiller believes there are two types of people that dabble in the tequila industry: One who “genuinely loves Mexico, tequila and our roots,” and the other, who only sees Latinx and Mexican-American consumers as nothing but a dollar sign, she says.
The latter is where some people believe celebrities like Jenner reside.
In February, the model announced on Instagram the anticipated release of 818 Tequila – available in añejo, reposado and blanco – adding that it was “almost 4 years in the making.” Fast forward to May: Jenner celebrated the official release of 818 with a social media campaign that didn’t go down as smoothly to some.
To promote 818, Jenner relocated to “local, family-owned farms” in Jalisco, Mexico, as her backdrop. She swapped her high-fashion gowns for jeans, an oversized button-up resembling a Mexican shawl and a white tank top. She accessorized with a sombrero and a pair of cowboy boots, and she wore her hair in pigtails.
In addition to the outfit, Jenner rode a horse through agave fields in the promotional video and sat in the back of a pick-up truck with a broken window covered in a plastic bag, nonchalantly petting a stray dog with one hand, sipping tequila with the other.
The criticism began to trickle in via Instagram comments, tweets and TikTok videos dissecting what people thought was wrong with her tequila ad. Jenner turned off comments on that specific post.
Social media users argued the way she dressed perpetuated harmful stereotypes. “It’s also about the way she’s dressing up like a Mexican person,” one Twitter user wrote. “It’s wrong & super distasteful. There were other ways to market. But this one? It’s not it.”
Author Julissa Arce wrote on Twitter: “Why can’t Kendall Jenner just show up as her white girl self to sell Tequila?! Why does she have to go and put on the braids, and wear the sombrero.”
The backlash prompted many on social media to support locally-owned and women-owned tequila brands including La Gritona, a mark distilled by Vinos y Licores Azteca also created and owned by Barajas; Bertha González’ Casa Dragones; Stella Anguiano’s Próspero Tequila; Nitzan Marrun’s Satryna Tequila and more.
La Gritona co-owner Coronado adds that since the 818 Tequila backlash began, he noticed an influx of followers and overwhelming support for La Gritona, which is 100% staffed by local women.
He asks: “Why aren’t these people attacking Clooney or The Rock. Why are they going after Kendall? Because she’s a woman and because she comes from this family that is perceived as superficial and not taken seriously. I don’t know what I would think of her tequila, but she can do whatever she wants.”
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Ali Fazal, VP of marketing at Grin, a platform dedicated to creating authentic influencer marketing campaigns, says the lack of diversity and inclusion in influencer marketing invites this type of backlash.
“Things like misogyny, racism, cultural appropriation – nobody ever liked them,” Fazal says. “It’s just that now we can talk about them more freely, without fear of persecution or the fear of retribution.”
Now consumers feel more empowered to speak their mind, he says: “They’re super discerning and they’re very critical of brands.”
Fazal attributes the pandemic to consumers’ craving for authenticity. “People are starting to evolve and get used to that being the norm,” he says. “Customers are really able to see when an endorsement is authentic and feels authentic.”
When it comes to matters of authenticity, many don’t attribute Jenner’s tequila and business intentions to be. Mike Morales, CEO of Tequila Aficionado Media, says that anything that is mass-produced or mainstream is “not using authentic methods” of production and that mostly is taking “short cuts” in order to lower the cost of production and spend more money on marketing.
“For those who want to do something authentic, you should know right off the bat that you’re in for the long game,” he says, adding that all some celebrities really have going for them in this particular business is their following and fan base.
Even then, Morales thinks Jenner stepping into the tequila business is a “non-issue.”
But four years after her infamous Pepsi ad, where the reality TV star was depicted leaving a modeling shoot to join a protest, handing the beverage to a police officer as a peace offering, the optics still don’t look good.
Tequila is ingrained in Mexican culture and a marker of the country’s identity. When celebrities or non-Latinx people venture into the industry, Barajas Cárdenas says, “You’re selling a little piece of Mexico. … We are not numbers.”