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From Boys to Admen

Awards: Two Van Nuys teens win a national contest --and $5,000 scholarships-- with their Spanish-language Starburst commercial.

May 21, 1996|KATE FOLMAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VAN NUYS — For its first substantive campaign to tempt Latino taste buds, Starburst fruit candy turned to a pair of ad idea types with unusual credentials.

For starters, Carlos Mendoza and Miguel Almena are juniors at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. Miguel, 16, is a slim and studious devotee of the TV sci-fi show "The X-Files." The more boisterous Carlos, 17, with his slicked-back hair and rolled-up T-shirt sleeves, looks like a latter-day Latino Marlon Brando.

Sure, they watch TV, but neither had any advertising spots to his credit. Until tonight, that is. At the Harmony Gold Screening Theater in Hollywood, the two will attend a movie-style premiere of their ad, called "Workers," which debuts Wednesday on Spanish-language TV stations nationwide. And they'll get $5,000 each toward college. Birmingham High will receive an additional $2,000.

Similarly honored will be Satsuki Kitagawa and Beatriz Valenzuela of Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, who created the spot dubbed "Mutation," which began airing last month.

All this because the four responded to a nationwide request from a New York Hispanic advertising firm, Font & Vaamonde Inc., or FoVa for short.

What the two Panorama City kids had going for them was a solid creative notion, an intuitive grasp of what appeals to Spanish-speaking consumers and a lucky break.

"Their ideas were very fresh, very unique, very original," said Ellen Ribner-Gutierrez, FoVa's account supervisor for the Starburst campaign. "They had a different perspective than you would get from an adult."

Miguel and Carlos first considered advertising in January only after being approached by Birmingham's Marsha Rybin, who had read the contest description. Rybin, coordinator of the school's journalism magnet program, knew the deadline had passed. But thinking of Carlos' art and Miguel's ideas, she called FoVa and got an extension.

"It was a flukey thing," Rybin later acknowledged, but she didn't want the hefty scholarship and national exposure to slip away. Within a week of her call, Miguel and Carlos were at their first-ever pitch session--a bilingual one at that, where Carlos occasionally translated Miguel's Puerto Rican Spanish and the ad execs' Mexican Spanish.

The executives' instructions were explicit: Create a 30-second ad projecting coolness, energy, excitement and popularity. Gear it toward teens who primarily speak Spanish, ages 12 to 17. Make sure the theme is "Instrucciones Para Comerse un Starburst" (Instructions for Eating a Starburst.) Prominently display the product package, pieces of fruit and the trademark Starburst wave of flavor. And, more vaguely, make sure the concept appeals to Latino sensibilities.

"We just came up with ideas that we liked," Miguel said, figuring that an ad that appealed to their two disparate personalities would attract just about anyone.

They automatically rejected the teenage-encounter-at-the-mall concept as "too fake," Carlos said, opting instead for something a little silly and cartoonish.

Brainstorming together and separately, bickering when necessary, Miguel came up with a whole notebook full of ideas; Carlos' best idea arrived just hours before the pitch session. It came from a "Gulliver's Travels" TV movie poster at a bus stop.

Stuck inexplicably in joker Carlos' head was a vision of Claymation Lilliputians. The minuscule men would build a scaffolding to reach a sad giant's mouth, catapult chewy Starburst fruit squares into it, making the giant smile. The young adman grabbed a piece of Birmingham High stationery and sketched his idea.

Miguel thought the notion of cooperative effort would appeal to a Spanish-speaking audience. "The Spanish market focuses more on family," he explained, "and it's probably more happy. . . . The English market focuses more on the individual--you know, 'This would be good for you.' "

They pitched the idea. Afterward, "I thought, 'What are the chances of us getting it?' " Carlos said. "I wasn't really that excited, I mean, they went to 60 schools."

*

But they won. Not only will the pair receive much-needed scholarship money, but they also have found potential careers. Miguel hopes to use his award to study computer graphics, perhaps at Caltech. Carlos now expects to study advertising design. And they have one doozy of a portfolio piece.

There's little chance of more Miguel Almena-Carlos Mendoza productions any time soon. First the boys have to finish high school. And college. After that, would they work together again? "Sure," said Miguel.

"Only for more money," Carlos said, half seriously.

Spoken like a true adman.

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