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Advertisers Go After Rising Number Of Foreign-Born In U.S. With Message Tailored To Audience

A recruiting poster widely distributed in the Soviet Union depicted a Red Army soldier pointing fiercely out at civilians and demanding: "Comrade! Have you volunteered?"

In Brooklyn, where a concentration of Russian emigres developed over the years, a liquor store adopted the image but changed the question:

"Comrade! Do you know where the lowest prices are?" the soldier asks in the Cyrillic type of the recruiting poster. The text then goes into English to quote prices for vodka and cognac.

The ad, designed by an agency catering to people from Eastern Europe, struck the funny bone of Brooklynites who grew up under Soviet rule.

As American ad agencies increasingly look for ways to connect with an expanding immigrant population, they often revert to words and images from the old country.

Global Advertising Strategies, which designed the liquor ad, also developed an ad for a telephone company that used an elephant from a well-known Russian nursery rhyme. In the rhyme, the elephant asks for chocolate. In the ad, the animal asks for the company's phone service.

Ronnie Lipton of Bethesda, Md., has written a book, "Designing Across Cultures," that examines ethnic advertising. A college journalism instructor, she also runs an advertising firm specializing in training and advising people who design and write across ethnic lines.

Ethnic advertising works when it's designed by people familiar with the language and the culture of the group being addressed, Lipton said. When it's not, problems occur.

"You can even fall into a cultural trap by playing by the numbers," Lipton said. "For example, the number four is considered by some Chinese- and Japanese-Americans to be far worse luck than 13 is to other Americans.

"So when you communicate with any ethnic group, especially one you weren't born into, you'd better know what you're doing."

Nowhere is that more necessary than with America's fast-growing Hispanic population. And the government is among the advertisers seeking to connect with Spanish-speakers.

The largest company handling ads directed at Hispanics -- the Bravo Group in New York, a division of marketing giant Young & Rubicam Inc. -- designed a first-of-its kind ad campaign to encourage Hispanics to complete the 2000 census.

Jennifer Marks, a strategic planner for the Census Bureau, said the campaign was a success. Among the best ads, she said, were those using the Spanish adaptation of the English census slogan: "It's our future -- don't leave it blank."

The Spanish version of the second part of the slogan was "hagase contar," which can mean either "get yourself counted" and "make yourself count."

Linda de Jesus, a Bravo Group senior vice president, said the aim was to convince Hispanics it was in their interest to complete the form.

"We had the problem that undocumented people were afraid the information they gave would be passed on to other branches of the government and result in their being deported," de Jesus said.

"We told them that the information was confidential and the figures could make a difference for themselves and their families, for the education of their children."

De Jesus stressed the importance of getting inside the culture of a target audience, not just its language.

In a campaign promoting bananas, English ads used images depicting the homey aroma of banana bread baking. Hispanics are more apt to see the banana as a symbol of gaiety and celebration. So the Spanish version emphasized images of music and dancing.

HMA Associates Inc. of Washington designed a calendar for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The page for one month carried the message "Don't Wait -- Vaccinate" and a picture of an adult holding a child by the hand. The Spanish-language version depicted an adult with three children -- a more appealing image to Hispanic parents, who tend to have larger families.

Saul Gitlin of the advertising firm Kang & Lee in New York, the Asian division of Young & Rubicam, said it's hard to compare the effectiveness of ethnic and mainstream ads. That's partly because ethnic ads usually appear in foreign-language newspapers and other ethnic media, which are not as widely distributed.


Carl Hartman, The Associated Press. August 27, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.