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Kendall Jenner's tequila brand is facing cultural appropriation claims. Experts say it's complicated

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Photo by DIMITRIOS KAMBOURIS, GETTY IMAGES

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 Latino  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-Latina 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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Kendall Jenner has swapped her Pepsi for her very own beverage brand: 818 Tequila. The 25-year-old model announced a new brand of tequila earlier this year and was met with criticism from the Latinx and Mexican-American community.
Kendall Jenner has swapped her Pepsi for her very own beverage brand: 818 Tequila. The 25-year-old model announced a new brand of tequila earlier this year... Kendall Jenner has swapped her Pepsi for her very own beverage brand: 818 Tequila. The 25-year-old model announced a new brand of tequila earlier this year and was met with criticism from the Latinx and Mexican-American community.

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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. It takes roughly seven yearsfor the plant 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. 

Kendall Jenner is not the first non-Latinx or white celebrity to create their own brand of tequila. Casamigos, founded by George Clooney, businessman Rande Gerber and developer Mike Meldman in 2013, sold in 2017 to a British maker in an acquisition that valued the U.S. tequila maker at nearly $1 billion.
Kendall Jenner is not the first non-Latinx or white celebrity to create their own brand of tequila. Casamigos, founded by George Clooney, businessman Rande Gerber... Kendall Jenner is not the first non-Latinx or white celebrity to create their own brand of tequila. Casamigos, founded by George Clooney, businessman Rande Gerber and developer Mike Meldman in 2013, sold in 2017 to a British maker in an acquisition that valued the U.S. tequila maker at nearly $1 billion.
AFP/Getty Images

“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 who dabble in the tequila industry: one who "genuinely loves Mexico, tequila and our roots," and another who sees Latino and Mexican-American consumers as  only a dollar sign, she says.

The latter is the group to which critics believe celebrities like Jenner belong.

Kendall Jenner's marketing of 818 Tequila receives cultural appropriation backlash 

Kendall Jenner's marketing of 818 Tequila receives cultural appropriation backlash 

In February, Jenner 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 oversize 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 pickup 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  post

Social media users argued that the way Jenner 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 DragonesStella Anguiano's Próspero TequilaNitzan Marrun's Satryna Tequila and others. 

La Gritona co-owner Coronado adds that since the 818 Tequila backlash began, he has 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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'Customers are really able to see when an endorsement is authentic'

'Customers are really able to see when an endorsement is authentic'

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 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." 

Many don't view Jenner's intentions – or her tequila – as authentic.  

Mike Morales, CEO of Tequila Aficionado Media, says that anything that is mass-produced or mainstream is "not using authentic methods" of production, and is mostly taking "short cuts" to lower the cost of production and spend more 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 are their followings.  

Even then, Morales thinks Jenner stepping into the tequila business is a "nonissue." 

But four years after her infamous Pepsi ad, i which 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 is a marker of the country's identity. When celebrities or non-Latinos venture into the industry, Barajas Cárdenas says, "You're selling a little piece of Mexico. … We are not numbers."

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