Hacienda Mexican Restaurants is taking down billboards that were criticized as offensive by members of the Hispanic community, the company said Thursday.
The South Bend, Ind.-based casual-dining operator had put up 26 billboards with a message reading: “The Best Mexican Food This Side of the Wall.” The text referred to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“We are going to replace them,” said Jeff Leslie, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the 13-unit chain, in an interview Thursday. “We didn’t anticipate the negative pushback.”
Several Hispanic groups said the billboards were offensive because of the link to the contentious wall proposal.
“There's a difference between funny and being offensive,” Sam Centallas, executive director of La Casa de Amistad Hispanic community center in South Bend, told WSBT television.
“I think they really need to think about how can you just be a little more fun without having to be degrading of demeaning,” Centallas said, adding that foodservice has a high proportion of employees with Latino backgrounds.
Leslie said the billboards would be replaced Friday and Monday with a simple black and white board that says: “Serving the Community Since 1978.”
Leslie said he heard from customers in Northern Illinois who “see the wall as an embodiment of all the anger and evil and discrimination that they feel from the Trump campaign.”
“It’s like a lightning rod,” he added. “We were looking at it as a current reference point in the media. We didn’t realize how much emotion is affixed to words and idea of ‘The Wall.’ We missed that.”
Leslie said that Hacienda realized that the advertising wasn’t doing what it intended. But Hacienda did receive overwhelming support for “The Wall” campaign, Leslie added.
“Messages are nine to one for the billboards, but that’s a very passionate one,” he conceded. “We are in the business to do business, so we have to listen to them.”
Hacienda installed the billboards two weeks ago, Leslie said, and the replacement messages should be finished by Monday. The simple Hacienda logo and message are uncharacteristic for the brand, he said.
The brand encountered criticism in 2006 when it featured billboards depicting a small, sombrero-wearing man with the tagline of "Take Home a Little Mexican."
“The experience we offer the guests is a fun one,” Leslie said. “And we think the advertising should reflect that.”