Until recently an evening of advertising on Spanish-language television was good for about as many laughs as a trip to the dry cleaner. But as the number of viewers watching Latino networks like Univision tops the likes of CBS (CBS ) some weeks, rates for TV spots are mounting -- and so is pressure to prevent the kind of ad-zapping that bedevils English-language channels. That's helping to spark a creative revolution in Hispanic advertising as clients take more risks to reach a fast-growing market of assimilated consumers with multicultural entertainment tastes. More and more, ads marked by slapstick, frat-house pranks and edgy humor are replacing the relentlessly earnest spots that have run on Spanish-language TV for more than two decades.
Witness the change in ads for that most wholesome of products: milk. The California Milk Processor Board for the past four years has run TV ads featuring heartwarming scenes of an extended Latino family, complete with grandmother baking tres leches cake. The slogan was, predictably, "familia, amor, y leche" (family, love, and milk). That tack was in stark contrast with the long-running "Got Milk?" campaign in English-language media featuring such slapstick scenes as a man in a body and head cast being fed a cookie through the mouth-hole by his hospital roommate and then being left alone to grunt for some milk.
The new Spanish-language campaign is much closer to the tone of the original. Conceived by Grupo Gallegos, a hot Long Beach (Calif.) shop, it shows mythic tableaus of people who have extraordinarily strong teeth, bones, and hair. One ad shows commuters holding on to train straps with their bare teeth. The slogan: "Toma Leche" (Drink Milk).
It was Grupo Gallegos that suggested moving the Hispanic ads closer to the jokier English-language ones. "That campaign is ranked as one of the best 100 campaigns of all time, but the Hispanic work hasn't been part of that, and that makes no sense to me," says agency President John Gallegos. It didn't take much to win over Milk Board Chairman Steve James. "We've seen a flat to declining sales line in Hispanic markets for some time, and our Spanish ads were only speaking to customers we already have," says James, who confesses that he had deferred to his former agency and did not pursue a new strategy in part because he doesn't speak Spanish.
More dynamic and entertaining fare in Hispanic advertising is a must as that segment's spending power climbs along with education levels. Agencies view today's Latino explosion as similar to the baby boomer phenomenon in the postwar U.S., in which a generation of children who grew up with different mindsets from their more cautious parents became a driving force in a dynamic consumer period. Hispanic buying power is projected to be $926 billion in 2007, up from $580 billion in 2002, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.
The four-year-old Grupo Gallegos has been a catalyst for advertisers rethinking the conventional Hallmark-card style. Two years ago the agency woke up Hispanic advertising with a TV spot for Fox Sports Net Inc. (NWS ), depicting a Hispanic housewife returning from shopping and detecting a bad smell in her house. Free of dialogue, the camera follows her around the house and finally into her living room, where she finds her husband so glued to a soccer game that he has been watching from the nearby toilet with the door open. "That was a great example of taking a slice of life from a husband and wife, no matter the culture, and pushing the ad into entertainment," says Hispanic marketing consultant Jennifer Woodard, who writes The Latino Marketing Report Web site and blog. Gallegos recalls his excitement when the ad took on much coveted viral status: He received a mass e-mail headlined "Why Women Hate Sports" with a link to the ad. The agency also put Latinos in Fruit of the Loom apple, grape, and banana suits. And last year, Gallegos won awards for an Energizer (ENR ) battery ad showing a Hispanic man, with an arm transplanted from a Japanese man, who couldn't stop taking pictures with his new hand.
Playing with and against stereotypes is at the center of the new genre. It does not come easily, since "not only are Americans comfortable with positive stereotyping as a means to be politically correct, but so are many Hispanics," says consultant Woodard. She points to the work of popular comedian George Lopez, known for successfully attacking stereotypes of Mexican Americans through humor.
A more hospitable climate for risk-taking also doesn't necessarily simplify finding the right balance. Virgin Mobile Telecoms Ltd. has gotten loonier in Spanish than it has been in English. Ads themed "No Soy Normal" (I'm not normal) use bizarre scenarios to promote the pay-as-you-go plans that the Hispanic market favors. In one TV spot, a man with cocker-spaniel ears flapping in the wind drives with his girlfriend in a convertible. "We had a lot of debate about how far to go but decided it's important to carry the irreverence of the Virgin brand to all audiences," says Bob Stohrer, vice-president of brand and communications at Virgin Mobile.
Advertisers are increasingly choosing to create Hispanic ads that closely parallel mass-market campaigns rather than hatch entirely separate strategies for Latinos. Southwest Airlines Co.'s (LUV ) general market ads, for example, depict embarrassing social situations for people, then use the punch line "Want to get away?" followed by a cheap fare price. Ads by Dallas agency Dieste Harmel & Partners (OMC ) mirror the general market strategy and also push the envelope, making fun of traditional images of Latin masculinity in a way that was difficult to sell to clients until recently. In one ad, a virile young man on Rollerblades skates up to a parked car window to admire his reflection. Suddenly, the tinted window slides down, and he finds to his uncomfortable surprise that two men inside the car are admiring him right back.
Latinos, says agency CEO Tony Dieste, want to be entertained and laugh at themselves as much as anyone else. "And come on," asks Dieste, "how many family dinners and soccer balls can we look at every night?"
By David Kiley