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Latino marketing goes mainstream

Prime-time ads break new ground by recognizing the rise of Hispanic consumers

Think back for a moment to this year's Super Bowl -- to one commercial that wasn't racy or provocative. In fact, the lack of controversy surrounding this ad is precisely why many advertisers and marketers are still talking about it.

The spot in question promoted a new Toyota Camry Hybrid and featured a father cruising on sun-dappled byways, his son strapped in the back seat. Typical car ad, right? Only the father was a Latino with a discernible accent. Their conversation played on the word hybrid: the son represented a blend of US and Hispanic cultures, the car represented a blend of fuels.

A touching idea, but five years ago, advertising executives say, it would have been unthinkable to blatantly target Hispanics in a mainstream, general market venue such as the Super Bowl. In just 30 seconds, Toyota leapt past two sticking points in corporate marketing departments across the country. The automaker rejected the prevailing wisdom that the only way to connect with Hispanics is in Spanish and through Spanish TV, radio, or print media. Toyota also discredited concerns that prime-time advertising aimed at Hispanics would rankle a non-Hispanic audience; the carmaker says it never heard from any disgruntled viewers.

The Toyota ad ``is a milestone in our industry, to say the least," says Alex Lopez Negrete, former chairman of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies and chief executive of Lopez Negrete Communications in Houston.

Toyota is not the only company switching from targeting Hispanics in Spanish to trying to reach Hispanics in English. Last fall Canton sneaker company Reebok created a website in English -- BarrioRBK.com -- devoted to Hispanic youth, while McDonald's Corp. has been running a TV ad featuring a Latina mother. Shot in both English and Spanish, the fast-food chain's commercial has appeared on high-profile programming including the Oscars and the Grammys.

``We're starting to see a shift in the marketplace with the arrival of cable networks and other Hispanic-centric English-language television shows," says Chiqui Cartagena, author of ``¡Latino Boom! Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business in the US Hispanic Market."

Most marketers have understood the importance of the Hispanic consumer at least since 2002, when Census figures showed Hispanics surpassed blacks to become the largest minority in the United States.

To that end, brands have spent millions translating their English advertising into Spanish and placing those spots on Spanish-language outlets, from TV to radio. But the majority of Hispanics in America -- about 60 percent according to the US Census -- are US-born, like the son in the Camry ad. Marketing gurus describe this subset as young, upwardly mobile, tech-savvy, favoring mainstream shows like ``American Idol" and ``The Simpsons," and either bilingual or else preferring to communicate in English. For the most part, brands have been ignoring this group.

Take Evelyn Reyes, 35, producer and host with ``Boston Latino," a local cable program in English geared toward Hispanics. Reyes, who was born in New York and grew up in Jamaica Plain, rarely watches Mexican soap operas, or telenovelas, so popular with Hispanics. Aside from visits to her mother's house, where the television set is often tuned to Spanish-language programs, she's unlikely to catch any advertising in Spanish, and she says the same is true of her Hispanic friends.

``We're different from foreign-born Latinos," she says. ``I've felt that difference ever since I was a kid. We're more acculturated."

``Acculturation" is the newest buzzword among multicultural marketers. According to the acculturation model, minorities -- from Latinos to Asian-Americans -- will blend certain elements of American culture with their own background. Rather than grouping minorities according to language preference and hiring agencies to translate ad copy, marketers who buy into this view are concerned with cultural differences -- not only between large ethnic categories like Hispanics and Asians, but also between smaller segments like US-born Hispanics and foreign-born Hispanics.

Rick Marroquin, director of Hispanic marketing for McDonald's, explains the fast-food giant's decision to speak to Latinos in English: ``We know that Hispanics, regardless of language preference, are more attentive to [marketing] that is culturally relevant. It is a concerted effort to deliver our message to the breadth of Hispanic consumers in the US today."

Toyota has been marketing to Hispanics for about 15 years, but the Super Bowl ad marks its first effort to reach bilingual Hispanics in English, says Sandi Kayse, National Car Advertising Manager for Toyota. While developing the campaign, the company feared a backlash.

``Prior to the ad coming out, we received a small amount of negative feedback saying that we shouldn't use Spanish on English TV stations," Kayse recalls, referring to a bilingual exchange in the father-son conversation using ``Sí" for ``yes."

Kayse said certain facts overrode their concerns: that among Hispanics Toyota is the number one-selling car brand, that the Camry is the number one-selling car in the United States , that Toyota has a firm reputation as a producer of hybrid cars, and that research shows that a significant number of Hispanic Super Bowl viewers care about the environment.

But a gut feeling about the ad's message is what ultimately carried the campaign through. ``We wanted to show that [Toyota] is moving forward and that [Hispanics] too are moving forward."

Kayse won't say whether the commercial has translated into more sales among Hispanics but is confident that it has been effective. ``It's done more than just highlight a car -- it showed that we respect our Hispanic customers and that we're willing to go to the expense of buying a Super Bowl ad to reach them," she said.

Will Toyota try a bilingual ad again? ``While we don't have plans to do something similar right now, we certainly realized there are opportunities to cross over diversity media lines," Kayse said.

Liz Cheng, vice president of programming at WCVB-TV, Boston's ABC affiliate, has tried to embrace such opportunities. She said she has made it a priority to reach out to Hispanic viewers -- through bilingual efforts like Spanish-language captioning and Hispanic programs in English. Cheng sites Census figures that show that Massachusetts's Hispanic population is quickly expanding. From 1990 to 2000, the state's Latino community grew 49 percent.

Even so, Cheng said her sales teams grouse that it's an uphill battle persuading advertisers to shift Hispanic advertising dollars into general market outlets.

``You feel like you're constantly in the process of educating," Cheng said.

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