News Column

The Struggle to Communicate with U.S. Hispanics

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Part of our Annual Media Report, Managing Editor Michael Bowker asks two renowned scholars to weigh in on what the mainstream media needs to do to better understand white-collar, middle-class Hispanics. Princeton University Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Marta Tienda, and Rutgers University Dean of the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, Jorge Reina Schement, offer their views on the complexities of reaching this underserved demographic.

For many of America's corporate advertisers and media outlets, the approach to the U.S. Hispanic consumer is simple -- translate English slogans into Spanish, and put a family-oriented picture on it.

The fact is much of the mainstream American media doesn't yet get that the Hispanic population in America is as complex as America itself. Hispanic media experts believe that marketers can become more effective at reaching the rapidly growing ranks of Hispanic entrepreneurs and business professionals and leaders by raising the level of message sophistication. Such messages must recognize that while these white-collar, knowledge workers have the same needs as mainstream America, their Hispanic heritage and culture often still play important roles in their lives.

"The simplest story is the one that is easiest to tell, but we are not a simple story," said Dr. Schement, who has written extensively on the subject. "The differences between the cultures of all the world's Hispanic countries and our individual level of acculturation into American society tends to be lost in mainstream media. Reaching the majority of U.S. Hispanics -- who tend to be proficient in English -- is not as simple as putting up a Spanish-language billboard in East Los Angeles."

Spanish-only speaking immigrants are well served by the media in the U.S. More than a hundred U.S. ad agencies, not including those from Latin countries such as Puerto Rico, Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico, which sometimes supply ad copy and campaigns for American companies, perform an increasing amount of the ad work designated for the U.S. Hispanic market. Corporations often gauge their sensitivities and efforts toward the U.S. Hispanic population by the number of Spanish language ads and programs they create. Both presidential candidates wooed Hispanic voters through Spanish-language advertisements even though a healthy percentage of Hispanic consumers, executives, entrepreneurs and voters are bilingual or English speakers only.

"Media references to 'the Hispanic market' and 'advertising agencies' references to 'Hispanic consumers' convey Hispanicity as a monolithic identity, defined through contrast with non-Hispanics," Dr. Tienda contends in her book, Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies. This is deceptive, she writes because "it masks the great diversity among the Hispanic population and implies a monolithic group that does not exist."

A Preference For English
Advertisers and the media should understand that the most obvious and rapidly growing Hispanic population, the college-educated, English-speaking entrepreneurs and white-collar knowledge professionals, often share more concerns with their neighbors than with recent immigrants.

"Why would I need to be addressed in Spanish to meet my professional needs?" asked Dr. Tienda. "Why would a CEO, whose family has typically been in the U.S. for at least a couple of generations, need to get his or her daily information about the world in Spanish? The more highly educated, the more English becomes our primary language."

The use and preference for English is a generational issue among Hispanics. While only 23 percent of Hispanic immigrants are comfortable speaking English, nearly all of their children born in the U.S. are fluent in English, according to a 2007 report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Using only Spanish-language messages to reach Hispanics shows confusion over the complexities within the Hispanic population. These efforts have a role to play and can help touch on a sense of community among Hispanics, but they should only be part of the overall message.

The irony is that when these messages are aired only in Spanish, many Hispanics who have been in the U.S. for generations, and are often well established in the business community, don't understand them.

A Nuanced Story To Tell
"Right now, neither the Spanish-or English-language media are getting it right very often," said Dr. Schement, whose mother's father was from Mexico. "The problem is one of distinctions and understanding. There is a more nuanced story to tell. Whoever starts telling that story successfully is going to gain the edge."

The Untold Story
"The reason for that is that the success of English-dominant Hispanics, who are successful in business, education and government, don't meet the story lines of the past," said Dr. Schement. "Advertisers and journalists have trouble seeing Hispanics except as immigrants or barrier breakers -- as in he or she was the first Hispanic to do this or that -- they don't see us beyond this obvious story-line."

The media often loses the distinction between Hispanics and mainstream America once Hispanics become educated, get jobs and speak English without an accent. Yet, there is an ongoing and vitally important story there that remains untold.

Dr. Schement, whose first language is Spanish, but who speaks English without an accent, relates how a colleague once took him to a Mexican restaurant in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "When we entered the restaurant, my colleague said, 'I'll bet you're really feeling Mexican now'! I told him, 'I may not look Mexican to you, but you're not looking hard enough'."

Organizational Success Is Our Own
At the corporate level there is a level of isolation and individuality among Hispanics because they often lose contact with each other. "It prevents us from sharing our stories with each other," said Dr. Schement. "We aren't breaking barriers, but we are redefining our roles within the business world and within society at large, and that is a story from which all Americans can benefit."

Conversely, sharing that story, as it expands, changes and develops new levels of complexity, can also help cut into those feelings of isolation, and provide models for others to follow. Advertisers and the media must move beyond the barrier-breaker concept to the understanding that Hispanic business people aren't outside the corporate culture any longer, but are so much a part of it that organizational success is their own.

Misunderstandings abound, however. "The media has this erroneous attitude that once Hispanics get into a corporation and speak flawless English we've lost our culture," said Dr. Schement. "But that isn't true at all. Just the opposite occurs, especially as the career paths of Hispanics become more global. We don't lose our culture, we broker it."

Bilingual Media Emerging Strong
As traditional English language newspapers and regional magazines are struggling to compete in today's market, bilingual media outlets are thriving nationwide. In part, these regional and city media outlets are addressing Hispanic needs -- and increasingly mainstream America's needs as well. They are filling the local news void left by the shrinking traditional English language media. It is not unusual, these days, to see non-Hispanic consumers purchasing these bilingual papers in search of local news.

However, these regional outlets typically don't provide the higher level national and financial news required by most white-collar workers. Many must now read several different publications and peruse the Internet in search of the complete news coverage they need.

It is important to both sides that advertisers and the mainstream media focus on English-speaking Hispanics as a critical demographic.

"In the next ten years, the battle for the consumer dollar is going to grow increasingly tough," said Dr. Schement. "You'll see advertisers discover and go after this demographic more and more. Finding the right message will be key. Right now it's being seen that English-speaking Hispanics have lost their culture, but the successful advertisers and media outlets will be those who realize that's not the case -- we are living a nuanced life."

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