The winner will get to design a dress to be worn at a red-carpet event by actress Dayanara Torres, a former Miss Universe once married to singer Marc Anthony. Ms. Torres is also one of the judges.
'Expect a lot of traffic'
"This is the first time we're mixing video with voting and social networking, so we expect a lot of traffic," said Mark Lopez, publisher of AOL Latino.
The 20 "Fashionista" contenders were selected by AOL's fashion editors from more than 200 entrants. AOL users now have two months to examine the 20 would-be designers' web pages using AOL Latino's social-networking service, Latino AIM pages, and cast their votes. AOL is helping the designers create and manage their web pages, which will include competition updates, photos and blogs.
In August, five finalists will be named and AOL Latino will release individual videos featuring each of them, followed by another round of voting. The winner will be announced in September. Along with dressing Ms. Torres for a formal event, the winner's designs will appear in a Hispanic magazine.
"Fashionista" will be showcased on AOL Latino's home page and promoted editorially, Mr. Lopez said.
As the exclusive sponsor, the Ford Mercury Milan is part of the AOL Latino site and home page, and there are links to the model's Spanish-language site (www.estilomercury.com). The videos of the designers will include product-placement opportunities for Ford; for instance, the aspiring designers could ride in Milan cars to the studio, Mr. Lopez said, and Ford designers may be among the judges for the contest. AOL Latino worked with Ford's Hispanic agency, Zubi Advertising, Miami.
"Fashion in general is so important to our Hispanic consumers," said Dave Rodriguez, multicultural marketing manager, Ford Lincoln Mercury. "We looked at how the passion point for fashion overlaps with digital, and that looked like a unique fit. And wherever we can be the primary advertisers, that gives us so much more flexibility and opportunity to speak as one voice. Speaking with AOL Latino, we made that one of the primary criteria."
Mr. Rodriguez said the Mercury Milan is Ford's best-selling model to Hispanics, with about 6% to 8% of sales to Latino buyers. In the general market, the Milan is a youthful model, with a cool, metro image, he said.
Reaching Nuevo Latino
"The Hispanic extension is the connection to what we call the Nuevo Latino, and fashion becomes the conduit," he said.
AOL Latino's contest is mostly in Spanish, but Mr. Lopez said "Fashionista" will cater to bilingual, bicultural Hispanics.
"We're targeting 50-50," he said, but the split between Spanish and English usage "could be more like 60-40."
Ford has been an active participant in Hispanic reality programs. Ford was one of four marketers that sponsored "Nuestra Belleza Latina," a reality show that recently ended on leading Spanish-language TV network Univision. The show combined a beauty contest with challenges similar to those on "The Apprentice," including one at Ford agency Zubi (contestants worked on a Hispanic campaign for Ford). Mr. Rodriguez said he was pleased with the "Nuestra Belleza Final" segment, and that the work done with the contestant might be used, perhaps as a viral campaign.