May 27, 2008

Treasures of a Nation, Not Fodder for an Ad

By Marc Lacey

MEXICO CITY — Eager to bolster tourism, Hidalgo State came up with a novel idea: an advertising campaign featuring a well-known actress wearing Hidalgo’s most eye-popping sites on her flesh.

“Hidalgo, under my skin” was the catch phrase for the ads, which featured the soap opera actress Irán Castillo covered with computer-generated images of mountains, waterfalls and monuments.

But federal officials were unimpressed. They did not object to Ms. Castillo’s lying seminude on the grass with hot-air balloons displayed on her body or lounging in a forest with images of rock faces on her flank or even sprawled on a beautiful mosaic wearing nothing but a beautiful mosaic. “We’re not moralistic,” insisted Benito Taibo, an executive with Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History. “We don’t have an issue with her. She’s a pretty girl.”

But the institute did have an issue with Ms. Castillo’s wearing Mexico’s patrimony on her curvaceous form. Whether it was the stone Atlantes in Tula de Allende or the old aqueduct in Padre Tembleque or the former convent in San Nicolás Tolentino, imprinting one of Mexico’s treasures on a soap opera star was deemed a violation of the law.

The last time Ms. Castillo’s skin caused such a fuss was when she posed seminude for a men’s magazine last summer.

The country’s anthropology institute, based in Mexico City, does more than just serve as Mexico’s monument police. It oversees a vast collection of pyramids, shrines and other attractions, all more than a century old. With 800 researchers, the institute churns out academic treatises that seek to make sense of the country’s past. It also rejects anything seen as exploiting a historical artifact’s dignity. That means that when a paint company recently asked if it could feature artifacts in a commercial, the institute said no.

The current crop of requests in a thick binder in Mr. Taibo’s office also includes one from the BBC seeking to film a documentary at a pyramid (Sí), another from a university professor seeking to do research at a site (Sí) and a third from a real estate developer who wanted to publish photographs of pyramids in his ads (No).

The institute’s staff pores over a movie script when a production company asks permission to film at a historical site to determine whether the story line is objectionable. “Apocalypto,” Mel Gibson’s 2006 film on the decline of Mayan civilization, received a no. “We said, ‘You can film anywhere except in our historical zones,’ ” said Mr. Taibo, who is also a published poet. “It was a film loosely based on history, but it was a particularly bloody interpretation of our past.”

The institute is barraged with all kinds of requests. Many famous Mexicans request permission to hold their weddings atop pyramids or to pose on them for photo sessions. “Our pyramids are not churches or chapels or clerk’s offices,” Mr. Taibo said of the wedding requests, which are rejected no matter the couple’s star power. “It’s a distorted idea of our patrimony.”

As for the rejection letters, Mr. Taibo said: “We are very polite and we are very kind, but. ...”

His voice trailed off and he rolled his eyes.

Roberto Gaudelli, whose Gaudelli MCW advertising agency designed the campaign for Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City, was not up in arms about the national institute’s rejection of some of his ads, which were done with computers and did not involve any actual body paint.

The institute ordered the ads featuring buildings, monuments and other national artifacts to be scrapped, while permitting those with images of natural settings to run in newspapers and magazines and on billboards.

“I understand their position,” Mr. Gaudelli said. “They have to take care of 5,000 years of history, and Mexicans are very proud of their history.”

Mr. Gaudelli insisted that the campaign featuring Ms. Castillo, who also sings and models, was not erotic but was designed to attract attention to Hidalgo, a place he compared to Idaho for being well off the tourist map. “We tried to use her body to make a point,” he said. “She went there and it had such an impression on her that it’s under her skin.”

Defining what is allowed and what crosses the line of propriety when it comes to historic artifacts can be murky. If Ms. Castillo had been wearing traditional Mexican dress in the Hidalgo ad campaign, Mr. Taibo said, it might have been approved.

But even that is not certain. A television show on tourism probably would not be approved, he said, if it focused more on the beauty of the host or hostess than on the beauty of the monuments. Also unlikely to make the cut would be an Indiana Jones-style movie that used Mexico’s treasures as a mere backdrop. “We don’t want our historic zones and monuments used as scenes,” he said. “They aren’t scenes. They are part of our riches.”

As for the Hidalgo ad campaign, Mr. Taibo held up one of the offending photographs. “What do you see?” he asked. “Are you seeing a monument? Are you seeing our country’s beautiful past? Or are you seeing a pretty girl?”

Well, um, maybe he had a point.