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VALLEY AND VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Market Researchers Help Tailor Ads to Target Latinos

Communications: The specialized firms are sensitive to what the growing ethnic group finds either appealing or inappropriate.

June 17, 1997|JULIA SCHEERES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When a local television station launched a campaign to attract more Latino viewers, an ad agency came up with what it thought was a perfect logo: a television set that transformed itself into a raging bull.

But when the agency's creative directors ran it by Garcia Research and Associates Inc., a Burbank consulting firm that specializes in the U.S. Spanish-language market, it got two thumbs down.

The firm tested the logo on a 10-member all-Latino focus group, which grew puzzled, then appalled, as the television legs warped into animal legs, the cord twisted into a tail and the antenna mutated into horns.

First, they were dismayed by the horns, which symbolize a cuckold in the Latino culture. Secondly, they laughed at the television set: Who has one with legs and rabbit ears these days?

The ad executives left feeling dejected, but having learned a valuable lesson, said Carlos Garcia, the research firm's president.

"Relying on stereotypes in advertising can be very dangerous," he said. "If companies take a moment to appreciate the differences, they will be rewarded."

Indeed, the purchasing power of the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group soared to $223 billion in 1996 and is expected to increase as successive generations of immigrants gain socioeconomic standing, experts say.

This fact has not been lost on a number of Fortune 500 firms that have begun to court Latinos at a furious pace.

Nevertheless, companies often find that inroads to the Spanish-language market are filled with bumps and potholes, Garcia cautions.

"Many advertisers try to shoehorn the Hispanic market into the general market effort, and they fail," said Garcia.

Many companies take the easy route and simply translate their campaigns into Spanish.

Sometimes this tactic works, added Garcia, but sometimes the original irony or humor is lost in a literal translation.

The "Always Coca Cola" logo worked as "Siempre Coca Cola," but if the ubiquitous "Got Milk?" ads were converted into Spanish, the result would be hundreds of billboards asking consumers "Are you lactating?" he said.

Then there was the airline campaign to sell more first-class tickets. The phrase "sit on leather seats" was translated verbatim to sentados en cuero--essentially inviting passengers to sit naked aboard the aircraft.

To avoid such advertising bloopers, companies have begun to rely on a growing cottage industry of specialized market research firms that has sprouted in regions with dense Latino populations in the past two decades.

Garcia said his 7-year-old business is "bursting at the seams," and he's in the process of an $80,000 expansion, which includes adding 18 phone lines, 20 new computers and a slew of part-time phone pollers.

He expects gross revenues to top $1.5 million this year, up 33% from last year. If his client base keeps growing, he may be forced to abandon his current 5,000-square-foot facility for lack of space, Garcia said.

Several other California firms specializing in the Latino market also reported that they are experiencing such steady growth that soon they will either need to expand or turn away clients. All the companies said their success was due in large part to bicultural, bilingual employees who are able to empathize with the target audience.

Because most people in the Spanish-language market are recent immigrants and unfamiliar with American products, pragmatism often works best in advertising, said Loretta H. Adams, president of Market Development Inc. of San Diego.

"A lot of times it's not a cultural barrier, but a communications barrier," said Adams. "As opposed to the general market, where you have to entertain the consumer with clever advertising, in the Hispanic market, a lot of it is educational."

Although the use of cultural cliches in advertising--such as mariachis, animated family scenes, matadors or Aztec imagery--is hotly debated by activists who want to eliminate stereotypes, market research experts say they work.

"We see ourselves as part of a family, a clan," said Michele Clark, director of marketing and sales for Hispanic Market Connections, a Palo Alto-based consulting firm. Though American culture has historically valued individualism, Latinos tend to put community first, she said.

Nevertheless, many advertisers have worn this truism into the ground, Garcia said.

Watch any number of Spanish-language channel television commercials and they will typically feature a large family sitting around the dinner table, discussing the wonders of XYZ product.

"Latino families have very defined roles," said Clark, herself a Puerto Rican. "Women always stay home with the children, cook, clean . . . that's her role. And the man is the provider, the head of the household. That's just the way it is."

An ad that shows dad extolling the virtues of a dish detergent or mom chugging down a cold one just wouldn't work because it's not an accurate reflection of the culture, Clark said.

Rather, television spots for top-selling Guerrero tortillas show a little girl rolling up Play-Doh versions of the corn staple as grandma proudly looks on and mom sweeps out of the kitchen with a steaming basket of the real McCoy in hand.

"If advertisers always appeal to [traditional] family values, they won't go wrong," said Clark.

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