December 20 2002

Marketing to Hispanics - en Español or English?

Virtually every immigrant group arriving in the United States has adopted English and forgotten its native tongue. Will the pattern hold for the U.S. Hispanic population? Research shows that it will, although continued immigration and Spanish-language media could slow the process. The findings hold significant implications for corporate marketers and their strategies.

A national survey by The Latino Coalition, a Washington, D.C.–based public policy organization, presents a clear picture of the current Hispanic market.

“In the United States, there are two Hispanic communities: one is the Spanish-language community, and the other is the English-speaking community,” says Roberto de Posada, president of The Latino Coalition. “They have very different views. For instance, on the barrier [in society] issue, for Spanish-speakers, the biggest barrier is language. Among English-speaking Hispanics, it is education. Language ranks very low as a barrier among English-speakers.”

Mr. de Posada says the Spanish-speakers tend to be more recent immigrants. In contrast, the English-dominants are usually second- and third-generation Hispanics. According to Census data, just over 40 percent of U.S. Hispanics are immigrants.

In a New York Times editorial titled “The Overwhelming Allure of English,” Gregory Rodriguez, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, explains that the proportion of foreign-born among the Hispanic population reached its peak during the 1990s. In the future, the immigrant component will constitute a smaller percentage of the Hispanic market.

”As American Latinos become less an immigrant market and more an ethnic market,” Mr. Rodriguez states, “the equation of Latinos with Spanish is beginning to fade.”

From a marketing perspective, the English-dominant Hispanics tend to have higher purchasing power as well as increased consumption habits and voter participation rates.

“Anyone who looks at the Hispanic market as a whole will need two strategies, one based on Spanish and one on English,” Mr. Rodriguez says. “There’s not one campaign that can reach both.”

Nevertheless, most of the Hispanic advertising in the U.S. media market hinges on Spanish-language usage as the touchstone of Hispanic identity. In her book “Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People” Arlene Davila explains the language’s strategic importance.

“Convinced that Latinos who are English-dominant or bilingual are already being reached through mainstream media, corporations almost always approach Hispanic marketing agencies having already decided to limit their marketing efforts to Latino consumers who are Spanish-speaking. Faced with these pressures, all advertising presentations include a statement explaining that Spanish is the preferred language for all Hispanics, some being more emphatic about Hispanics’ use of or proficiency in this language, but all stressing that Hispanics speak Spanish and that they will continue to do so, and that the best way of reaching and connecting with them is through ‘their language,’” Ms. Davila writes. (Ms. Davila uses the term “Hispanic media” as synonymous with “Spanish-language media,” when in fact English-language media clearly utilize the term “Hispanic” as well.)

The credibility of Spanish fluency as a litmus test for Hispanic identity faces a constant challenge from the incidence of acculturation. For example, data on Hispanic youth compiled by California-based Cultural Access Group show that 57 percent of the young people surveyed prefer to speak English.

In reaction to such trends, Hispanic advertising agencies have fragmented the market along language-preference lines. Such subcategorizations “facilitate the pre-selection for research purposes of monolingual Hispanics, which are considered the source of authenticity, the ones who update and renew the market [through immigration], perpetuating the image of the static, unchanged, Spanish-speaking Hispanic who is so attractive to the dominant media, constituted by the Spanish networks, as well as to prospective clients,” says Ms. Davila.

In charting media usage, the Cultural Access Group study found that young Hispanics in Los Angeles watch nearly twice as many hours of English-language television as Spanish-language TV, with similar responses for radio. These same youths spend five times more hours reading English than Spanish.

These findings fit with previous studies – including Simmons 2000 and the Gallup Poll of Media Usage – showing that Hispanics speak Spanish more than read it, particularly when age is factored in. In Language Choice in Hispanic-Background Junior High School Students, Ms. Pearson and Ms. McGee report that 68.3 percent of the students surveyed never read in Spanish.

Looking forward, none of the experts predict a halt in the steady forward march of English assimilation.

“Our community is more sophisticated and mainstreaming,” says Mr. de Posadas of The Latino Coalition. “This trend will continue for the foreseeable future.”

“Spanish language has never been the only defining element of Latino identity,” adds Ms. Davila.

“Regrettably, Hispanic media [i.e., Spanish-language media] have generally denied the complexities of language use among Latinos for the simple reason that acknowledging this diversity may result in the breakup of a profitable market and in their losing ground to mainstream English-language [advertising] agencies,” stated Ms. Davila. “We know Latinos’ media habits are more complex than the [Spanish-language] media say. But as long as there are no viable English-language media alternatives for Latinos, we will continue to go back to the language formula.”

In the future, “the media should expect to see us as we are,” says Jorge Reina Schement, a professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University. “That kid who speaks English and watches English TV, who’s maybe not so good at Spanish but eats tortillas and eggs for breakfast – he’s the kid of the future. He’s one of a spectrum of what has become the Latino market.”

Written by Senior Editor Joel Russell. Academic and data research by Research Supervisor J. Tabin Cosio and Research Assistants Cynthia Marquez and Michael Caplinger. Reprinted from Hispanc Business Magazine, December 2002.

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