In a commercial going viral this week, the airline Aeromexico unveiled a clever business strategy that also pokes fun at fears about the border: The airline is supposedly giving Americans discounted airfare to Mexico based on how much “Mexican DNA” they have.
There’s just one problem. “It’s an impossibility to really identify anyone’s DNA to be ‘Mexican,’” genetic genealogist Blaine Bettinger of Baldwinsville, New York told BuzzFeed News.
It’s unclear if the ad is a satire; the airline did not return a request for comment. But even if it is, Bettinger said, the premise is an extreme oversimplification of what DNA tests can reveal about your heritage.
In the two-minute ad, Aeromexico representatives ask Texas residents why, despite their penchant for tequila and burritos, they don’t want to visit Mexico. As one man puts it, “Let me stay here in peace and let those folks stay on their side of the border.”
But the ad notes that Mexicans have been migrating to the US since the 1800s, so, the voiceover says, “We did a DNA test to prove it and turn those results into discounts: The more Mexican they are, the more discount they get.” The airline claims it gave out discounts through its travel agencies in the southwest, from Texas to Nevada, and 54% of the tests in these states had “Mexican DNA.”
Comedy ensues. One man, upon being told he’s “22% Mexican” and eligible for a 22% discount to fly to Mexico, responds, “That’s bullshit! That’s bullshit!”
A lot of people loved the ad, declaring it should win a “Troll of the Month award.” News outlets like Time, USA Today, HuffPost, and Business Insider seemed to take the testing premise seriously, calling it “brilliant” and “hilarious.”
But genetic genealogy testing is a lot more complicated than that. DNA-based ancestry companies do a good job of distinguishing between different continents, like Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Africa, according to Bettinger.
But beyond that, it’s difficult to drill down to specific countries or regions, he said. That’s especially true of the Americas — Mexico as well as the United States, Canada, and Central and South America — because their populations are historically made up of immigrants from all parts of the world. People who live in Mexico could have ancestors from Italy, for example, but that ancestry doesn’t make them any less Mexican.
“Mexico is no less of a melting pot than the United States,” Bettinger said. “There’s no such thing as United States DNA, so why would there be Mexican DNA? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Some companies might be able to identify a customer as having ancestors from indigenous populations in, say, South America. But there are still a lot of Mexicans who don’t have any indigenous DNA — just as there are many Americans who don’t have any, Bettinger pointed out.
23andMe does not tell customers if a certain percentage of their DNA is Mexican. At most, it can tell someone they fall into the “Native American” category, which encompasses Mexico and more than a dozen other countries.
Ancestry’s results are more specific because the company uses both DNA tests and customer-built, record-based family trees to figure out if people fit in up to 350 “DNA regions,” including “Central & Southern Mexico” and “Michoacan & Southern Jalisco.” That means those customers would have genetic similarities to people with family trees from those regions, Bettinger explained.
Still, even if a person was shown to have DNA tied to a specific region of Mexico, that would simply reflect that the person has a long-established ancestry in Mexico, which could be a “tiny subset” of the overall population, Bettinger said. That result wouldn’t account for Mexicans whose relatives came to Mexico more recently, such as one or two generations ago, he said.
Aeromexico’s ad did not say which test it used. But spokespeople for 23andMe and AncestryDNA said their companies were not involved, at least not as official partners.
“What it suggests is if people don’t have ‘Mexican DNA,’ does it mean they’re not Mexicans? That’s what bothers me. It ignores the rich diversity of a country like Mexico,” Bettinger said. “I don’t think they can do what they did. I think it’s in part unethical to do that because in the Americas — in Mexico and the US and Canada — we’re very diverse, which is a very good thing.”