Us and them

Brazilian drinks giant Ambev’s decision to pull their recent advertising campaign for popular soft drink Guaraná Antarctica in the face of complaints by the Human Rights Commission of the lower house of Congress has left some Brazilians puzzled. The advertisement in question features poster boy Neymar tricking foreign tourists into saying ‘comical’ or nonsensical phrases in Portuguese when trying to order a can of said fizzy juice, and you can watch it here.

Despite the advert being neither funny nor clever, perhaps you could be forgiven for thinking that this is an over the top response to a light-hearted commercial. Making Pão de Açúcar out of a rock washed up on Guanabara Bay, if you will. However, consider the advert’s premise: Neymar’s character, instead of helping foreign visitors enjoy a piece of Brazilian culture, takes advantage of their interest and humiliates them for it. Hardly defensible behaviour, especially when Brazil is about to host millions of World Cup tourists in two months’ time.

The Brazilian psyche has an unhealthy attitude towards foreigners. On one end of the scale, there is this (for lack of a better term) Guaraná mindset. Westerners are referred to as gringos, a bunch of boorish ignoramuses (comparable to the ‘ugly American’ stereotype that came about in the 50s) who are there to be taken advantage of. This idea was born during Getúlio Vargas’s rule of tropical fascism in the 1930s and although it is certainly on the wane – thanks, globalisation – it has yet to disappear entirely.

In my experience, the vast majority of interactions I have had with Brazilians have been positive. When I moved here three years ago, I met tonnes of people who took great pleasure in teaching me aspects of local culture, however I also know how it feels to be bullied just for wanting to learn.

Don’t get the wrong idea, Western tourists and ex-pats are hardly among the downtrodden in Brazil. In most cases they are welcomed, and sometimes seen as demigods, with doors opened for them which remain closed to the majority of Brazilians. This Western Worship is just as problematic.

Both negative perceptions stem from a larger branch of the Brazilian psyche, a long-lasting inferiority complex commonly known as the complexo de vira-lata, or ‘stray dog complex’. Promoted by Vargas’ nationalist discourse in the 30s, a worrying gulf opened up between ‘us and them’ – Brazilians and the rest of the world – the remnants of which can still be seen today.

The knock-on effects of this viewpoint, introduced by Vargas as a political tool to consolidate his popularity, alienated many Brazilians from foreigners and fomented these disproportionate attitudes of dismissal or adulation of anything outside of their borders.

Considering that Brazil overthrew a particularly brutal military dictatorship less than thirty years ago and has only recently arrived on the world’s economic stage, this is a country that is still looking for its own identity.

This World Cup is destined to be one of missed opportunities, with shelved infrastructure projects and scant public investment, but Brazil’s view of foreigners is something that the tournament can still change for the better.

The Brazilian public needs less of Neymar taking advantage of tourists and more positive examples, such as the latest offering from petrol station chain Ipiranga, who have a reputation for making sharp, funny advertisements. Granted, this is hardly among their best, it is cheesy and flirts with some international stereotypes, but the overall sentiment – the jingle teaches Brazilians how to direct foreigners to the petrol station in a number of languages – is one of welcoming and friendship, instead of exclusion and ridicule.