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In Their Own Images

TV Ad Seeks to Broaden the Public's View of Latinos

April 02, 1998|DENISE GELLENE

A local nonprofit organization has created a TV ad to improve opinions about Latinos in what may be the first-ever image ad for an ethnic group.

Aimed mostly at middle-class whites, the ad shows Latinos at Boy Scout meetings, high school graduations, neighborhood cleanups and other civic activities. "We are Hispanic Americans," the voice-over says. "We are part of you, America."

Sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ad comes in response to polls showing that many whites in Southern California have negative views of Latinos. In a survey commissioned by MALDEF last fall, 54% of whites said Latinos did not show enough concern about the quality of American life.

"We want to change mainstream perceptions about Latinos," said Antonia Hernandez, president of MALDEF, an advocacy group that provides scholarships and promotes Latino causes. "We want to challenge the myth that we are foreigners and don't care. . . . We want to show what we have in common with other Americans."

The ad is unusual in that its only purpose is to polish the image of Latinos. Experts said that most ads dealing with ethnicity solicit donations--such as commercials for the United Negro College Fund--or promote broader societal goals, like diversity.

The ad, which has been airing since late February during evening news programs in Los Angeles, is a series of vignettes that show Latinos who are productive and involved.

Images include fast-track Latinos in a corporate boardroom, Latinos working at a construction site and a Latino man in a military uniform.

Norma Orci, creative director at La Agencia de Orci & Asociadoes, the Los Angeles agency that conceived the ad, said the images were chosen to address specific concerns voiced by white Southern Californians in focus groups.

"They wanted to know whether Hispanics share the American dream of a better life, whether they are loyal to this country, whether they participate in this culture," Orci said. "We needed to choose images that people would recognize as true--like the construction site. We also wanted to remind them that Hispanics fought for this country, and fight the same battles--[for example] tagging is a problem that Hispanics also suffer with."

To be sure, perceptions of Latinos reflect an ambivalence Latino immigrants have had about American culture. UCLA researcher David Hayes-Bautista said that immigrants have been reluctant to become citizens because they viewed it as a repudiation of their heritage and in some cases harbored dreams of returning to their native country. But Hayes-Bautista, who assisted MALDEF in preparing the ad, said those attitudes on the part of Latino immigrants are changing.

"We see in the numbers that are taking steps to become citizens," Hayes-Bautista said.

MALDEF said the ad is primarily aimed at the 46% of white people who tend to approve of Latinos. While these people consider Latinos hard-working, they aren't necessarily advocates for Latinos, said Carlos Garcia, the Burbank pollster who conducted the attitude survey.

"We want them to voice their opinions and work more closely with us. We want them to defend us at their country clubs," said Garcia, who quickly acknowledged his use of a stereotype.

Garcia said his research shows there is room to change minds. He said that only 17% of whites surveyed hold negative stereotypes about Latinos. Among the so-called disapprovers are those Garcia describes as conformists. They believe Latinos should assimilate but are otherwise sympathetic toward them. Also among the disapprovers is a group Garcia describes as estranged. He said that they feel distant from the Latino culture but don't necessarily dislike Latinos.

"The results show some issues of concern and some areas of great potential," Garcia said. "With 5% openly hostile, that's very encouraging."

Although lauding MALDEF's intentions, some experts questioned the effectiveness of its ad. They said that in depicting only Latinos, the ad implies they are separate. The experts also questioned the decision to run the ad during news programs, which are watched by older viewers.

"The work we've done on prejudice shows you make progress by going to the younger people first and changing their attitudes before going to the older groups," said Ruth Wooden, executive director of the Ad Council in New York, which sponsors public service advertising. Younger viewers, she said, "are not as unmovable in their views."

MALDEF said that it is directing its message at opinion leaders, who tend to be older people. The advocacy group said it hopes the ad will have an impact on issues that affect Latinos, such as affirmative action--which most Latinos support but most whites do not--and the upcoming Proposition 227, which eliminates bilingual education.

"The Latino community is taking a beating," Hernandez said.

MALDEF said that it had little information on how whites have received the ad. Despite its favorable depictions of Latinos, the ad is controversial among that group. MALDEF decided to use "Hispanic" in the ad, believing that is the label most used by whites. But many people living in the Southwest who are of Latin American heritage prefer "Latino," Hayes-Bautista said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Attitudes About Latinos

A slight majority of whites disapprove of Latinos.

Approve: 46%

Disapprove: 54%

Hostile: 5%

Disaffected*: 12%

Conformist**: 14%

Estranged***: 23%

* Have negative stereotypes

** Believe Latinos should blend into the "melting pot" but are otherwise sympathetic.

*** Don't expect Latinos to blend in and do not relate well to Latinos or their culture.

Source: Garcia Research Associates, from an October telephone survey of 600 white residents of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Ventura counties.

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