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Marketing executives at Saturn Corp. learned years ago that not all U.S. Hispanics are the same.

They rarely identify with each other's nationalities, and they don't live in the same areas.

But they do like to be spoken to in their respective native dialects. And Saturn, working with agency Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, has pitched cars to specific targets in specific markets.

"It's a real dicey deal when you start picking off segments within the segment," says Donald Peasley, regional marketing coordinator for the General Motors Corp. division.

This discovery was made when Mr. Peasley, who speaks only the little Spanish he learned in college, noticed the poor results from a Spanish-language Saturn testimonial spot using San Antonio, Texas, firefighter Ernest Imperial. It was the choppy, informal Spanish often spoken in the home, and the non-actor had difficulty reading from the Spanish cue cards.

"He drifted too far away from a Mexican dialect to be real," Mr. Peasley recalls.

The marketer eventually had to lay a voice-over atop Mr. Imperial's testimonial, and now hires a consultant to be on-site at all shoots.

Across the industry, auto marketers are getting first-hand lessons in advertising in Spanish. Slim budgets and slippery cultural nuances make zeroing in on the market difficult.

Just the same, these companies are doing their best to comprehend and address these cultural idiosyncracies.

As a whole, the Hispanic market presents a lucrative target, one expected to become the largest minority group within 15 years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population is expected to grow from 24.2 million in 1992 to 40.5 million in 2010.

Hispanics spent $190 billion in 1994 and are expected to spend $206 billion in 1995, according to the U.S. Hispanic Market Report, a publication from market researcher Strategy Research Corp.

But market diversity makes targeting Hispanics a difficult task, necessitating agility on the part of marketers. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, Mexicans made up 60% of the total U.S. Hispanic population, with Puerto Ricans second with 12.1%, and Cubans third with 5%.

In specific markets, those numbers are even more dense. In Los Angeles, for example, some 80% of the Hispanic population-or 35% of the city's total population-is Mexican, says Roberto Orci, president of La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, Los Angeles, which handles Hispanic marketing for American Honda Motor Co.

In the New York metropolitan area, 47% of the Hispanics are Puerto Ricans. In South Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, 35% of the population is Hispanic, and 55% of that segment is Cuban, says Mr. Orci.

Saturn, which uses no national ad buys and instead relies on regional buying orchestrated by local dealer groups, had hoped to run Mr. Imperial's spot in the nation's top Hispanic markets. But consumer testing showed that while Mexicans responded favorably to ads featuring Cubans, the converse was not true.

So Mr. Imperial's ads skipped Miami, instead running in Texas, California, Chicago, Baltimore and New York.

"That's when we learned there are some real touchy issues," says Mr. Peasley.

Despite these nuances, there are several common themes among Hispanics that marketers can portray in ads.

For instance, families usually make car purchases together, with both spouses being involved in the decision.

In addition, the car's size, and how it can accommodate typically large Hispanic families, also is important.

One Honda ad shows a family laboring to fit the car into their garage. Another shows a proud father striving to get his family and its new Honda into a single photograph. He ends up shooting two pictures and putting them together.

"In automotive, it's not a matter of gaining awareness, but communicating the image of this car and what it's going to do for you," says Dick Thomas, senior VP with Strategy Research Corp.

To position themselves in the Hispanic community, many car makers will get involved in community projects before ever marketing the brand.

For Ford Motor Co., it was community education projects in San Antonio, or sponsorship of the Cinco de Mayo or Calle Ocho festivals in Miami. For Honda, it was a number of community projects, including a drive to get legal and illegal residents to participate in the 1990 census, says Eric Conn, senior manager-national automotive advertising with Honda's North America unit.

Honda spent two years supporting community programs in the nation's top 15 Hispanic markets before it began advertising its Accord and Civic lines, he says. He called it "earning the right" to market to the community.

"Otherwise, you don't have any credibility," says Mr. Conn.

Gone is any idea of using general-market ads and dubbing in Spanish, or simply tossing in a mariachi band for effect.

"So many companies think that you can just take a little blond in pigtails with her mouth moving up and down with Spanish coming out," Mr. Conn says. "That can be more offensive than it can be helpful."

Similarly, general-market theme lines sometimes don't survive translation well.

Ford counted couples and families in both the general-market and Hispanic segments as targets for its new Contour. But the general-market theme, "A world car for the 21st century," was not well understood.

So marketer executives, working with agency Mendoza, Dillon & Asociados, Newport Beach, Calif., changed the Hispanic market tagline to "The car of the future today," says Judy Pohlod, car advertising manager.

"That has played very well," she notes.

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