Hispanic Marketers (and Agencies) Need to Put Language War Behind Them

If You Want to Build Business, Cue in on Culture Instead

By Published on .

It has finally happened. According to none other than the distinguished Pew Hispanic Center, births have surpassed immigration as the main driver of growth in the U.S. Hispanic market. In other words, since 2000, the proverbial exponential growth in the Hispanic population has been (and will continue to be) mostly driven by kids born in the U.S. -- a majority of whom are second generation -- and not by the so-called unacculturated.

It's no surprise. The Pew Center and others have been predicting this development for years. But it is likely to reignite what has been the subject of much debate. Or better said, hostility. The question of how a brand most effectively markets to Hispanics who were born in the U.S.

Until now, most of the discussion has focused on language. On one side have been those that argue in favor of Hispanic exceptionalism. The argument goes that Hispanics, unlike other immigrants to the U.S., have a unique relationship with their native tongue and that they will hold on to it longer than other immigrants. This point of view has been the darling of Univision, many Hispanic advertising agencies and, on the other side of the fence, some right-wing extremists like Samuel Huntington and Patrick Buchanan. The other argument is that the children of Latin-American immigrants will be either English dominant or bilingual, their grandchildren will be English dominant and their great-grandchildren will be English speaking "monoglots."

The two arguments are not necessarily contradictory. According to a 2005 study published by the University of Albany's Mumford Center, Hispanics are generationally retaining their Spanish longer than earlier European immigrants and Asian immigrants of today. However, the study concludes that English monolingualism is the predominant pattern by the third generation.

In the world of Hispanic marketing, the Language Wars have dominated the discourse for at least the 10 years that I have been in this business. They were bloody. Because if the way to reach U.S. born Hispanics is in English, the Hispanic agencies would lose their advantage; they could be beaten out by the dreaded general-market agency. I've come out pretty strongly in my belief -- bolstered by research I've seen and conducted -- that most U.S.-born Hispanics prefer English, at least by the time they finish high school. And I've made some enemies in the process.

The problem is that so much of the debate has focused on language and not enough on the "how to" of reaching U.S.-born Hispanics. What does being Hispanic mean to them? Do they appreciate cultural cues? How do you touch them on an emotional level without being stereotypical?

These are complex questions that are too easily ignored -- or too easily obscured in the argument over language. The more I study the questions, the more ready I am to admit that I don't know the answer. But I'm convinced that the solution does live in the realm of culture, likely in mainstream advertising. It's what I call "the wink."

The wink is a private communication of camaraderie and recognition -- between advertiser and consumer -- with an embedded culturally relevant message that doesn't hit the consumer over the head. It's an insider reference to Hispanic culture that an outsider would miss. It appeals to a mainstream audience but hits the target consumer's sweet spot. General Mills got it right a few years back with a general market commercial that showed a "typical" American family eating breakfast together, the kids speaking English, the parents speaking Spanish. By making that American family Hispanic and bilingual -- like millions of American households today -- every Hispanic person watching that ad likely got the wink.

The hostility of the Language Wars appears to be simmering down. More and more marketers seem to get that it's not an "either-or," that language is often situational-dependent. Maybe it's soccer and telenovelas in Spanish, reality TV and hip-hop music videos in English. And like everything else, everyone is different -- there is no "one size fits all." Still, with the dominance of U.S.-born Hispanics now a reality, there needs to be more-constructive and less-defensive discussion as to how to reach this group.

In the words of immigration scholar Peter Salins, "I do not think that most Americans really understand the historic changes happening before their very eyes. What are we going to become? Who are we? How do the newcomers fit in -- and how do the natives handle it -- this is the great unknown." Nowhere are these questions more relevant than in Hispanic marketing. If we are to win at this multicultural game, it behooves all of us to take a step back and make the effort to understand what it is that drives these new Americans to buy.

David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation
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