News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The pimps of Latino culture

Imagine for a moment that a major retailer decided to create a marketing campaign for everyone in the U.S. whose last name began with a “J.” Household income, education, age, gender, race and other demographic factors would not matter. The only unifying element in this group would be the first letter of each person’s last name. As absurd as this sounds, that is essentially what some marketers are doing when targeting Hispanics. In many cases, marketers are simply searching public records for Hispanic surnames and throwing together people with wildly divergent demographic characteristics to create a “market.”

So what’s the problem with this? At first glance, the worst fallout of this kind of marketing is poorly translated versions of English ads and telemarketing calls in Spanish to households where no one speaks the language. However, the ultimate effect of this kind of marketing can hurt every person in the U.S. with a Spanish surname. Let me explain.

When pressed, these “Hispanic marketing experts” will grudgingly acknowledge that Spanish-surnamed people differ significantly by country of origin and whether they are first-second-or-third generation in the U.S. However, these usually self-appointed experts are still fond of conjuring imaginary characteristics about all Latinos to justify lumping them all together anyway. The most threadbare of these clich├ęs is that Hispanics are "devoted to their families." But there are more insidious ones. Here are just a few actual examples from self-proclaimed Hispanic marketing advisors:

“Hispanics tend to place less importance on time as a concept. This can be frustrating to many non-Hispanics who are used to a fast moving world and are constantly rushing and planning for the future.”

“Discussions with Hispanics tend to be more emotional and less rational. Understanding this will allow you to build powerful messages. Try touching their hearts first, not their heads.”

As a Latino, I find these generalization more than insulting. They hurt my chances in the business world. Would you do business with someone who is going to be perennially late, lethargic, overly emotional and illogical? Would you hire that person as an employee?

The best proof about the myth of Hispanic homogeneity is this: The majority of Hispanic-targeted marketing campaigns have been failures. All the same, these “Hispanic marketing experts” are trying more desperately than ever to sell their wares. So we can expect this sad trend to continue.

Freedom of speech is one of the wonderful guarantees the people of the United States enjoy. Our free enterprise system is another blessing. However, these rights and advantages should not be a license to pimp an entire ethnic group in order to make a buck.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

Stereotypes posing as marketing advice

Unless you are just now emerging from the safe room you built in anticipation of the Y2K disaster, you probably know Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. That widespread fact has caught the eye of marketers across the country and many have rushed in to exploit this rich, untapped vein of consumers. Not surprisingly, this “gold fever” has spawned some ugly consequences. 

Let me offer just one example.  

A recent blog by a Hispanic marketing consultant offered some advice to mainstream advertisers that left me stunned – and offended. The marketer, a Latino himself, gave several “tips” to advertisers about communicating with Latinos at online social media sites. Most were demeaning oversimplifications, but the first tip was the most offensive. The gist of it was this:

“Discussions with Hispanics tend to be more emotional and less rational. Understanding this will allow you to build powerful messages. Try touching their hearts first, not their heads.”

The damage of perpetuating this kind of stereotype is severe – especially in these hard economic times. Imagine an employer with two qualified candidates for a job, one of them a Latino. Will the employer hire the one who will be “more emotional and less rational?”

When I pressed this marketing consultant for evidence to support his conclusions, he revealed it had come from monitoring Hispanic sports chat rooms online. Now ponder this for a minute. This consultant was basing his conclusions for all Hispanic online behavior from the chatter of sports fans. It’s hard to imagine a more irrational group – regardless of ethnicity.

How irrational can sports fans get? Listen to ESPN radio sometime, or visit any sports blog on the Internet. You’ll hear Non-Hispanic sports fans venting raw emotion 24/7. Just a few years back, someone threatened the life of an Ohio State football player after the nineteen-year-old student dropped a touchdown pass against Texas. Even the supposedly stiff-upper-lip English can get downright nasty when it comes to sports. English soccer fans have been banned from some foreign countries for their legendary rowdiness. So the claim that Latino sports fans are more emotional than Anglos is little more than prejudice posing as marketing savvy.

Ironically, despite our reputation for being a fiery bunch, most Latinos let offensive comments like this go unchallenged. But unless we raise our voices against these affronts, we can expect more of the same. My post criticizing the blatant stereotyping in this blog was assailed by several other Hispanic marketing consultants who obviously felt their meal tickets threatened. 

In the 1950s, Madison Avenue made millions creating stereotypical minority characters like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and, of course, the Frito Bandito. Sad to think that more than a half century later, some marketers are still trying to sell the same tired claptrap.  

Raul Ramos y Sanchez