Latino stereotypes are mocked: "What is the obsession we have with our hair, this desire to show the world what we can do with three pounds of gel and a comb?" Cartoon characters interrupt speeches, and industry grievances are confronted in a game-show format.
Welcome to the annual fall conference of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, the most fun, energetic event you've ever been to -- even before you find yourself being escorted from cocktails into an evening awards show by an entourage that includes Miss Universe, a roving brass band and a conga line.
But if you mistake the festive atmosphere for a lack of substance -- an easy surface observation -- you'd be dead wrong. Because this event also featured a central rallying cry that united the record 550 participants in a way you don't often see at watered-down industry conferences.
By now, no one needs to be convinced of the size and clout of a U.S. Hispanic market that will have $920 billion in purchasing power next year. But the agencies that specialize in serving the segment have been under pressure to defend their existence by general-market agencies and marketers convinced an assimilating Hispanic population can be reached using mass media.
That debate is a healthy one, forcing industry executives to confront a question they hate to legitimize. Their answer: It's not language that separates those markets but a deeper cultural identity.
AHAA Chairman Carl Kravetz, who in his spare time runs Cruz/Kravetz: Ideas, Los Angeles, unveiled the findings of the Latino Identity Project, a yearlong assessment by academics and account planners of 40 years of cultural research on Hispanics. Kravetz said the findings are the basis for a "new model" for understanding and connecting with Latino consumers, one that doesn't rely on "overly simplistic" characteristics such as ethnic pride, language preference or acculturation.
Instead, the project identified more complex characteristics of Latino identity based on factors such as spirituality and gender perceptions, expressed in everything from food to music to art.
It sounds complicated but boils down to such insights as: Latino families make decisions as a group rather than as individuals; Hispanics have less sense of personal space; and they focus more on the past and present than the future.
The hope is that marketers will use those insights to better target the audience. The skeptical view is that the agencies are merely looking for a way to justify their specialized existences. But that's equally true of every marketing study conducted, and AHAA is reaching out to the Association of National Advertisers and leading research organizations to validate its findings.
If the Latino consumer is different, there are also some things that set Hispanic agencies apart. CEOs of rival shops take great pride in being close friends and insist they would never try to swipe each other's clients unless approached first. Even if it's not true, it says something about how they perceive themselves. It also makes for great parties.
Danger of insularity
If there is a criticism, it's the familiar one of preaching to the converted. Everybody here is a believer, and there is a danger of insularity.
But that's a minor quibble. One role of any industry powwow is surely to rally the troops for the battles ahead. And Latinos pride themselves on their optimism. They know they still face real challenges, but that doesn't make the dancing any less fun.