The beer commercial celebrates a Mexican grandmother making homemade tortillas, but as she flips them with her fingers, a warning appears on-screen: Do not attempt.
The Modelo ad, in heavy rotation during the NBA playoffs, puts tortilla flipping in the same category as driving in the manner of a stunt driver on a closed course. Both are behaviors that come with on-screen warnings not to replicate.
But the practice has long been done in Mexican households, whether using a comal, the flat griddle pan used by the “abuela,” or grandmother, in the Modelo commercial, or over the blue flame of a gas stove.
“There’s no other way to do it,” said Josephine Hernandez, one of the owners at Carolina’s Mexican Food in central Phoenix.
At Tacos Calafia, also in central Phoenix, the tortillas are warmed on a flattop heated to 400 or 450 degrees, said Jose Martinez, a manager there.
Martinez said no one has been injured warming a tortilla since the restaurant has been open. And no training is required.
“It’s natural, I think,” he said.
But any adult could, even after a few bottles of Modelo. “I think you’d be quicker,” he said.
It’s not entirely clear who the commercial is trying to reach, said Loui Olivas, a professor emeritus at the W.P. Carey Business School at Arizona State University. Maybe the “gabachos,” he said, but “not your average Latino household in the Southwest. They’re missing that one.”
Olivas, who has studied the market and produced an annual report on its size, said that he and his wife found the warning “offensive.”
He guessed that it was probably placed there by an attorney. “Try and safeguard it,” he said. “Don’t try this and burn yourself and come try to sue us.”
But, he said, the warning rings wrong to someone who grew up in a household where warm tortillas, preferably slathered with butter, were common.
“Any sensible Mexicano born in the Southwest, you’ve seen your mom or abuelita make flour tortillas,” he said.
To make matters more confusing, yet another commercial in heavy rotation during the NBA playoffs also has someone flipping tortillas with their fingers. And this time with no warning.
The commercial for the Spark card by Capital One features the owner of Masienda, a Los Angeles-based vendor of masa, flipping tortillas on a comal with no apparent distress.
Jorge Gaviria, the owner of Masienda, said that he didn’t think flipping tortillas was inherently dangerous.
If the pan allows, he said he would slide the tortilla over to the edge to lift it up. Otherwise, he said, he’d just grab it.
“It depends on my risk tolerance at the moment,” he said.
In video tutorials on making tortillas, he has shown how to use a spatula, but then faces a barrage of critical comments. But Gaviria said that he could understand using a spatula if someone was warming up dozens of tortillas at a time, or if someone didn’t grow up with the muscle memory of how to do it safely using only fingers.
“We don’t prescribe either way,” he said, “as long as you feel comfortable.”
Gaviria said as the tortilla transcends Mexican culture, others might start using instruments other than their fingers. And, he said, that may be what led to the warning.
“As a large company,” he said, “they’re just covering their behinds.” Making the commercial also a celebration, he said, of the litigious culture in the United States.
A spokesperson for the corporate owner of Modelo, AB InBev, did not return a message requesting comment. No one from Grey Global Group, the ad agency that created it responded to a question about whether the warning was the creators’ idea, or a bevy of attorneys.
Those warnings have become ubiquitous on car commercials and other ads. Some show the product – usually an auto – being used in a spectacular way. Others show the actors in the ad doing something ridiculous that common sense would dictate shouldn’t be replicated.
At Rito’s, which along with Carolina’s were finalists in The Arizona Republic’s Burrito Bowl, flipping with fingers is the only method.
“If you ask any one of our ladies that have been with us for so long, that’s how we do it,” Daniel Hansen, one of the co-owners told The Republic, a member of the USA TODAY Network. “We use our fingertips.”
Not that there isn’t danger in flipping tortillas with fingers.
Hansen said that the restaurant went to biometric time clocks. Employees would scan their fingerprint to clock in and out. But they had to get rid of them.
“They couldn’t read our fingertips,” he said, “from years of just doing it.”