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Latinos Are Focus Of New Brand Of Ads

By Lizette Alvarez

October 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON – Commercial breaks during "Despierta America," a wacky, popular morning show on Spanish-language television, are usually full of pitches for American products, everything from coffee to detergent. Now, a new brand name has made a frequent appearance: the American politician.

Recognizing the growing power of the Hispanic electorate, candidates in the nation's largest states are spending record sums for political commercials that speak directly to Spanish speakers. They are running the commercials earlier than before and using more sophisticated methods to reach Hispanics.

Rather than simply translate scripts from English to Spanish, candidates in Florida, New York, California and Texas have tailored their messages by injecting cultural touchstones, music, celebrities and messages that resonate with Hispanics. The commercials run mostly on the two largest Spanish-language networks, Univision and Telemundo.

"You are talking about a sea change in terms of political advertising," said Sergio Bendixon, president of Bendixon & Associates, a public opinion research company that specializes in the Hispanic market. "They have gotten much better at it."

A new report by Adam Segal, editor of The Johns Hopkins Journal of American Politics, said political candidates running for governor, the House and the Senate had spent at least $8 million on more than 12,000 advertisements in Spanish in the 2002 campaign, setting records for a nonpresidential election year. The largest spenders are candidates in New York, Texas, California and Florida, states with sizable Hispanic populations. But even smaller states like Colorado and New Mexico are seeing an increase in the number of commercials in Spanish.

In New York, Tom Golisano, the Independence Party candidate for governor, has spent more than $1.3 million on two television commercials in Spanish. Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, has spent at least $775,000 on Spanish advertisements, some of which feature him speaking Spanish. Carl McCall, the Democratic challenger, has spent $930,000 on Spanish advertisements.

In Texas, Tony Sanchez, a wealthy Democratic businessman who speaks fluent Spanish and is running for governor, has spent $1.4 million on advertisements in Spanish that have been widely praised for their appeal to the Tex-Mex population in his home state. The advertisements started running in January. Gov. Rick Perry has spent more than half a million dollars.

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican Party have doled out $1.3 million to run hundreds of commercials in Spanish in South and Central Florida. Bill McBride, his opponent, went on the air with his first commercial last week.

Senate candidates in Colorado, where the two contenders are in a dead heat, and New Mexico are also making a concerted effort to connect to Hispanic voters through paid television commercials.

All of this attention and money points to the importance of the Hispanic vote in certain crucial states. Recent research has shown that while Hispanics side mostly with Democrats, they are not as partisan as other voters and share some Republican values and philosophies.

"In this country, you can mostly identify your Republican voters and Democratic voters and independent voters," said Frank Guerra of Guerra DeBerry & Coody, the San Antonio advertising agency that has created commercials for Mr. Perry in Texas and Mr. Bush in Florida. "There is not a lot of open room there. But here is a segment of people, the fastest growing, the largest minority group in America, and fully 25 percent can go in either direction."

The move into Spanish-language television by politicians was also fueled by two other factors: In the last decade, Spanish-language television networks boomed and Hispanics, many of them newer immigrants, increasingly turned to those networks for news and entertainment.

For politicians, it was a slow dawning. In the past, most candidates slapped together advertisements at the end of a campaign, paying little attention to quality or relevance. But in a telling shift this year, candidates have grown more sophisticated in creating their advertisements and are using media consultants who specialize in commercials geared to Hispanics.

The advertisements are notably different from their English counterparts. Univision viewers find the kind of positive, upbeat commercial that English-speaking viewers pine to see. Negative advertisements, which consultants say are needlessly aggressive and turn off Hispanics, are almost nonexistent.

The commercials are knowledgeable of Hispanics in other ways, too.

"The Anglo-Saxon culture is more about give me the facts, convince me, be superrational with me," Mr. Bendixon said. "In Hispanic culture, it's love me first and I'll vote for you."

"The emotional personal connections are so important," he added.

Mr. Sanchez, a seventh-generation Texan whose ancestors hail from Mexico, understood that from the start. To introduce himself to voters in English, he used a strait-laced commercial that was much drier and detailed.

The Spanish version had Mr. Sanchez hugging and kissing the people around him as Tejano music played. In this advertisement and others, he speaks using Tex-Mex colloquial phrases, like "Este gallo cantara para todos," which translates roughly into "This rooster will fight for everybody." The advertisement feels more like a party than a dissertation.

Spanish advertisements focus more on family, education and employment, and they feature Hispanics and the candidates speaking in Spanish. In Florida, where Mr. Bush is trying to reach out to a wide variety of Hispanics, his campaign's first advertisement featured flags from different Spanish-speaking countries, each one morphing into the next. The commercial comes back to the idea of Florida and Mr. Bush's role in shaping the state. A narrator says, "Nosotros encontramos en esta tierra oportunidad," which means, "We find opportunity in this land."

"Hispanics in Florida are very happy to call Florida home, but they are also very proud of their national origin," Mr. Guerra said about the flag advertisement he created. "We tailored the message to the pride that we feel, but the fact we now call Florida home."

All of Mr. Bush's advertisements have him speaking almost impeccable Spanish. His wife is Mexican and he has lived in South Florida for years.

Mr. Golisano's biographical advertisement prominently features his up-by-the-bootstraps success story and his immigrant roots – his father emigrated from Italy and worked in a coal furnace. A billionaire, Mr. Golisano is the founder of a company called Paychex. His English commercials do not talk as much about his entrepreneurship.

Erick Mullen, Mr. Golisano's media strategist, said the commercials had been particularly effective. One poll had Mr. Golisano's popularity jumping from 9 percent to 35 percent among Hispanic-Americans after the advertisements were broadcast.

The best commercials, Mr. Bendixon said, keep the facts simple and straightforward. "This immigrant Hispanic electorate by definition is low on the socioeconomic scale," he said. "They are new immigrants – maids, janitors, parking attendants, busboys. Most don't have a high school diploma. Don't tell them about the difference between my focus for financing Social Security and the other guy's."

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