It's The Culture Stupid!

Understanding Latinos is more than a matter of language

By Manny Gonzalez
Published on LatinoLA: November 5, 2001

It's The Culture Stupid!

NBC's plan to buy Spanish-language TV network Telemundo may have some Hispanic advertising agencies salivating, but there are some of us who are not amused. In fact, when the rumors about a possible acquisition of Telemundo first started a few months ago, I cringed at the thought of how this would be covered in the news media.

It's not that I wasn't happy to see the US Latino market getting warranted press attention. As in the past, I feared that truth would become the first casualty, and that certain misconceptions about US Hispanics would be perpetuated. More importantly, I was concerned that an important segment within the Latino market would once again be ignored. The initial reports about NBC's plans confirmed my worst fears.

The most often misunderstood and misreported issue is language usage. Reuters, in its online news story, batted this one right out of ballpark. The story stated "there are more than 35 million Spanish-speaking people in the United States." Yes, there are 35 million Latinos in the U.S., or about 13% of the population, but my Latino friends who don't speak a word of Spanish were surprised to learn that they really do!

Often-misquoted statistics about Spanish-language usage among Hispanics may delight those who's interest it is to perpetuate them, but they do incredible harm to the overall development of TV programming for Latinos, Hispanic marketing strategies, but more importantly to Latinos as a people.

The general consensus among many independent and well-respected research companies is that when it comes to language usage the US Latino market is divided in thirds: one-third speaks only or primarily Spanish, another third only or primarily English, and another third is bilingual.

So Reuters could have written that "there are more than 23 (not 35) million Spanish-speaking people in the U.S." Spanish-language media also often use the universe of all US Hispanics as the base for viewers of Spanish-language TV (instead of clarifying that they are using the smaller universe of Spanish-speaking TV viewers only).

The other principal Latino market statistic that often gets misused is total buying power. Standard & Poor's/DRI estimates that by 2010 the Latino market's buying power will exceed $1 trillion, up from a current $400 billion. Much of the news media covering the NBC-Telemundo deal did what Hispanic advertising agencies and Spanish-language media often do: assign the total buying power to the entire Spanish-speaking base.

Once again, my English-speaking Latino friends tell me that they were not motivated to buy their BMWs because they saw commercials for these cars on Spanish-language TV.

The majority of US Hispanic advertising agencies and the two major US Spanish-language TV networks (and consequently, but unfortunately, mass media) have generally approached the US Latino market in terms of language rather than in terms of culture. In other words, marketing to Hispanics has been largely based on what they speak rather than what is culturally relevant to them. But by focusing on language, and perpetuating incorrect or misleading statistics, you ignore a large segment of the US Hispanic market, namely the youth segment.

In many ways Latino youth are the most under-served and most neglected of all demographic segments in the U.S. The burgeoning Latino youth segment is by far the most bilingual and bicultural segment among US Hispanics. In the Los Angeles area, for example, 58% of the total under-20 segment is Latino!

It is precisely the obsession with language that leads a large media company like NBC to go after a Spanish-language TV network rather than worry about how it can develop its TV shows from ones that feature no Latinos into ones that include young Latinos as principal characters.

In addressing the question of whether NBC content would be translated, Telemundo President Jim McNamara told, "we are woefully undercomedied in Spanish TV and NBC is the king of comedy." Does he really want to repeat his predecessor's mistake, which led to their downfall, and re-package English TV sitcoms into Spanish-language versions? And does he really believe that young Latinos who have never seen people like themselves portrayed in the NBC TV show "Friends" consider NBC to be the gold standard of comedy?

And it's not just the major TV networks, English and Spanish-language, or Hispanic advertising agencies that are at fault. It is also US corporations and "general market" advertising agencies, who when faced with the question of what to do with young Latinos almost always assume that Latino youth are already being captured by Spanish-language media. Tell that to the young Latinos who went in droves to see the English-language feature hit film "The Fast And The Furious."

To be fair, the US Latino youth segment is probably the most difficult to market to or capture because while not entirely elusive is the most complex. The complexity stems in large part from the bicultural world in which young Latinos live. It's not unusual to see a young Latina going to an Oasis (alternative rock) concert one weekend, and then to an Alejandro Fernandez (Mexican pop/regional) show the next.

US marketers, be they media companies or advertising agencies, can learn a lot from media entities such as L.A.'s English-language "Power 106 FM," a radio station whose audience is 70% Latino and whose on-air personalities often speak the universal language of bicultural Latino youth: "Spanglish."

Perhaps, at the end of the day, for NBC and other media players it's really not about culture and cultural understanding, or even about going after a burgeoning pot of advertising money. Perhaps Forbes magazine was getting onto something, in a recent article about investor interest in Telemundo, when it pointed out that many Spanish-language media companies in the U.S., including Univision and Telemundo, are run by non-Hispanics.

This could be a simple case of economics and for NBC Spanish is the easy way out. When you can produce an hour of Spanish-language TV at a fraction of what it costs to produce an hour of English-language TV programming, and still able to secure large amounts of advertising dollars, why wouldn't you be interested in Telemundo? Heck, you can have French-speaking Vietnamese running Spanish-language media companies.

When it comes to Economics 101, culture is irrelevant.

About Manny Gonzalez:
Manny Gonzalez is president of sapo communications, a Los Angeles-based multicultural marketing consulting firm. He is a former marketing manager of La Opini?n, and a former brand manager with Miller Brewing. He can be reached at

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