Walter Cronkite's Impact on the Hispanic Market

Voice of Middle America Provided Useful Example

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Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
With the passing of legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite, I reflected on an expression that I haven't heard of late: "Walter Cronkite Spanish." This was the response given to clients when they questioned the feasibility of speaking to the collective U.S. Hispanic market, when in fact there were such significant differences between the regional and national accents heard across more than 20 Spanish-speaking countries of origin, the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Walter Cronkite Spanish was the easiest way to explain that while, indeed there were significant accent differences (not to mention differences in dialects, idioms and colloquialisms), there was also a "neutrality" that could be achieved and that would be understood and appreciated by the vast majority of Spanish-speaking consumers living in the United States.

The allusion to Walter Cronkite enabled the often monolingual, U.S.-born client to have a frame of reference that was culturally relevant to their life experience. They would then be able to acknowledge that English speakers throughout the United States were also varied in their accents and expressions and that indeed, there was a "Standard American Speech" or "General American" that was particularly important if one was to be successful in news-casting or voiceover announcing of any kind. The British equivalent is known as Received Pronunciation or "The King's or Queen's English."

Cronkite was born in Missouri and grew up in Texas, where he attended the University of Texas. Unlike his colleague Dan Rather, however, whose Texan accent was part of his professional persona, Cronkite was from a generation when regional accents were considered unacceptable for broadcast talent. Today, television interviewer Charlie Rose for example, retains a slight Southern accent as a result of his North Carolinian roots. In contrast, Stephen Colbert, a South Carolinian, chose to eliminate any trace of accent attached with his birthplace, opting instead for an "anonymous newsman accent."

In the U.S., a few of the accents that are most recognizable include:

  • Dixie -- famous accent of the American South East (South of the Mason Dixon line, thus the name)
  • Texas Drawl
  • Cajun
  • Yat -- an accent predominate in the N'Awlins area
  • New York
  • New Jersey
  • Jewish
  • Boston
  • Upper Midwest -- think Fargo or Prairie Home Companion
  • The Valley -- as in "girl"
It should also be noted that, in this context, these are referred to as "accents" rather than dialects because I'm focused solely on pronunciation. Dialects, on the other hand, have distinctive vocabulary, pronunciation, intonation and grammar. Often, they are related not only to place of birth but to social class and educational achievement as well. Among Latinos, the same distinctions hold true. There are accents and dialects, which often speak to countries of origin, but can also relate to social status and education.

There are those who consider the Colombian accent to be the most neutral in terms of spoken Spanish and, therefore, the most equivalent to what was once known as Walter Cronkite Spanish. Similarly, there are those who will argue that in terms of identifiable accents, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Argentines and Spaniards top the list. And, of course, with the size and diversity of a country like Mexico, for example, there can be no doubt that in-country accents and dialects exist. The Mexico City Mexican does not sound the same as his counterpart from the Yucatan. And even in the smallest of countries, the less educated and rural, may also have accents and dialects that are distinct from more highly educated city dwellers from the same country.

Today, on both English- and Spanish-language networks, there is more of a focus on overall clarity than on neutralizing accents completely. In English-language advertising, when ethnicity is not a specific marketing variable, voiceover talent are often cast because of their Standard American Speech or, conversely, because they have a specific accent that aligns with the brand's identity on a class or lifestyle basis. Dialects, which would be the result of a copywriting decision, are not commonly used in national efforts but can often be valuable in marketing regionally or in highly localized mediums.

In my experience, Spanish-language voice-over casting and copywriting is still somewhat conflicted. In some cases and to varying degrees, it can be driven in large part by the national origin of the agency principal or the creative director. However, when the creative product is at its best, national Spanish-language advertising seeks to

  • maintain the integrity of the Spanish language
  • use language to unify U.S. Hispanics as opposed to divide and alienate
  • and communicate in a tone and manner that's in keeping with the essence of the brand.
Regional and localized marketing, as well as marketing targeted to distinct socioeconomic sub-groups has greater license to allow accents and dialects to play a role in the verbal and written communication.

And, of course, there are always creative choices, be they comedic or otherwise, which would make the use of accented talent or dialect-heavy copywriting an appropriate and effective choice.

So thank you, Walter Cronkite, for making it easier to explain to Corporate America how Latinos across America could all be moved by a sole Spanish speaker just as all Americans were moved by your "everyman" voice.

And thank you for contributing to the future of bilingual journalism in this country, because this will have a directly positive impact on preparing advertising talent as well. Cronkite NewsWatch, a student-produced initiative from the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU, now has a sister initiative called Cronkite NewsWatch en Espanol.

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