June 21st, 2008

Careful Word Play Targets Hispanics

By Aaron Nelsen
The Brownsville Herald

Marketers increasingly using commingling of languages for ad messages

A billboard on U.S. Highway 77/83 reads, “Our huevos are bigger.”

The bigger huevos are the subject of a Stripes’ convenient store advertisement for its in-store restaurant, the Laredo Taco Company.

The sign’s clever use of bilingual double entendre has caused quite a stir on this stretch of the Texas-Mexico border, in addition to being a source of amusement for some.

The success of the sign hinges on the Spanish word huevo, which literally translates as egg and figuratively refers to a part of the male anatomy.

The commingling of Spanish and English, while nothing new in the Rio Grande Valley, has become the latest marketing ploy in an effort to lure the coveted bilingual Hispanic consumer.

“Everybody likes a good message if it’s the right message,” said Bo Bothe, president and chief creative officer of the Houston-based Brand Extract LLC. “But, you could really offend somebody if you don’t watch it.”

Bothe and Brand Extract developed Stripes’ ad campaign to announce itself after the company bought Circle K in 2006.

The key, Bothe explained, is to adapt the message to the audience.

Easier said than done, especially where cultures collide, but household names such as Burger King and Anheuser-Busch are increasingly embracing the concept.

Even the U.S. Army has adopted the practice with its “Yo Soy el Army” advertisement.

But, it’s not as simple as it looks.

“It’s really easy to put Spanish words on a billboard,” Bothe said. “The reality is more complex.”

Advertisers are continually in pursuit of an evolving and complex marketplace.

By comparison, English and Spanish-language advertising is well-trodden territory. However, the concept of combining the two, called “switching” in the business, is still in its infancy.

The Rio Grande Valley has become a testing ground for this brand of marketing, and the sweep of highway between McAllen and Brownsville is the palate.

Roadside signs roll out in English, Spanish and Spanglish, sometimes promoting the same product.

This is possible because of the Valley’s unique setting. Culturally and linguistically sandwiched between Mexico and the United States, the Texas-Mexico border is a test tube of sorts where locals move freely between Spanish and English in conversation, often tangling the two in a creative blend.

Yet marketers walk a fine line when trying to cash in on those cultural distinctions.

If done well, they run the risk of alienating language purists, and if done poorly, they risk turning off their target market, according to Jerome Williams, professor of advertising at the University of Texas at Austin.

Williams’ research centers on multicultural marketing and advertising, especially to African-Americans.

He says that when television advertising uses vernacular commonly used in the African-American community, the practice has a tendency to backfire.

“It’s seen as demeaning,” Williams said. “People feel like their culture is being exploited in a way to sell them a product.”

Although Williams is less familiar with the Hispanic community, he says he wouldn’t be surprised to find a similar response.

“First of all, there is no such thing as the Hispanic market,” he said. “It’s too diversified for a single ad to resonate with everybody.”

Marketing is a hit and miss business, but there is a method behind even the worst campaigns.

Advertisers generally use the acculturation model as a guide. The model is a litmus test that balances language, cultural, foreign born versus U.S. born to determine how best to reach the desired demographic.

The overwhelming Hispanic Rio Grande Valley is represented by just about every category of the acculturation model, but companies still aren’t assured of hitting their target.

Regional differences and use of the language vary widely among Hispanics living in the United States, according to Juan Torres, director of Latino marketing for Anheuser-Busch.

“What means one thing in Miami could mean something totally different and derogatory in South Texas,” Torres said. “You have to be very careful and respectful.”

In the end, it’s a numbers game, and second generation Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the Hispanic population, Torres added.

“It clearly showcases the need to be able to speak to this consumer,” Torres said. “The question is how? Sometimes blending two languages is a sure way.”

As chief creative officer at Bromley Communications, Caterino Lopez says the gratuitous use of Spanglish in advertising is becoming common practice.

Bromley is a giant in the world of Hispanic advertising. Based in San Antonio the company has a credits reel that is a who’s who of international brand names, including Continental Airlines, Yoplait and Burger King.

But, only occasionally has the company used Spanglish in its commercials.

“We tend to use it when it makes sense,” Lopez said.

When Burger King approached Bromley with its chicken fries, the fast food restaurant chain was concerned its product wouldn’t translate to its Hispanic customers.

Bromley resolved the problem in a commercial in which construction workers talk about the new chicken fry, switching from Spanish to English and back again.

The idea, Lopez said, was to combine two things that on the surface have no business going together, like a chicken and French fry, but when combined work perfectly well.

Businesses accept some losses when they use switching as a device. Nevertheless, it’s a sacrifice that more are willing to make.

“As long as we’re hitting our target market, we’re not so concerned about offending (people) not within that range,” Lopez said.

As Spanglish weaves its way into the cultural mainstream, particularly among the desirable 18 to 34 demographic, expect to see more of it.

That’s not necessarily a good thing, Lopez said.

“I’ve heard some that make me cringe,” Lopez said. “Nine times out of 10, you’re going to do it really bad.”

Out of 10, the huevos billboard was a direct hit, Lopez admitted.

Riding the wave of success of its first campaign, Stripes plans to unveil another in July, said Sharon Yon, public relations and advertising manager for Stripes.

“We want our advertising to be memorable,” Yon said. “We hope that sometimes people will even make it part of their culture, like an inside joke.”

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