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Presidential Campaigns Missing the Mark in Advertising to Latinos

President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have fallen short thus far when it comes to targeting Latino voters electronically, according to some Spanish-language media experts.

By Alana Semuels,  Los Angeles Times

Both political parties agree that the country's 21.3 million registered Latino voters could make a crucial difference in this year's presidential election.

Yet in a race defined by massive spending on television ads, fast-response Internet videos and sophisticated social media efforts, both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have fallen short thus far when it comes to targeting Latino voters electronically, according to some Spanish-language media experts.

Republican candidate Romney trails Obama badly among Latinos, according to polls released last week, and isn't counting on them to propel him to victory. Even so, his Spanish-language advertising has been minimal and clumsy, the experts said. Some of his ads are simply translated versions of his English-language commercials - a particular no-no when trying to reach Latino consumers.

Obama has spent more heavily, and created more effective ads than his rival, but some experts said that so far he has failed to craft a campaign that keeps pace with the rapidly increasing size and sophistication of the Latino population, which climbed to 50.5 million in the 2010 census, from 35.3 million a decade earlier.

Neither campaign has adopted the approach honed over the years by businesses targeting Spanish speakers - one that not only depicts Latinos in positive settings, but also reflects attention to cultural nuance. A truck ad in the Midwest, for example, will show American flags and beer-drinking men, while an ad for the same truck in Arizona will depict Latino men hauling construction equipment and managing their farms.

"In the TV world, there's incredible sensitivity to trying to get Latinos excited; there's tons of money spent on 'how do we get this demographic to like our product?'" said Matt Barreto, a prominent Latino pollster at the University of Washington. "The political world has been very slow to change."

Some marketing experts say Romney's Spanish-language efforts suggest he's abandoned hope altogether of reaching the Latino community. Polls indicate that as well - an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll showed Obama led Romney 66 percent to 26 percent among Latino voters.

Romney's campaign has released two Spanish-language video ads so far - "Dia Uno" and "Van Bien?" - but both are directly translated from identical ads in English, a blunder in Spanish-language marketing, said Glenn Llopis, founder of the Center for Hispanic Leadership.

"You can't just translate these things," Llopis said. "That's where a lot of these marketing things go wrong. They need to be customized, form-fitted. If the Hispanic community thinks you're just translating and not creating a campaign that speaks to them, they'll just shut off."

The ads also don't talk about issues such as health care and education that are important to Latino voters, many of whom are uninsured and benefit from policies such as Obama's health care law.

"Dia Uno" talks about what the first day of a Romney presidency would look like, outlining objectives such as opening the Keystone oil pipeline and ending the health care law. "Van Bien?" picks up on an Obama comment that the private sector is "doing fine," asking how the president can fix the economy if he doesn't understand it.

What's more, some of the phrases in those ads are awkwardly translated, said Melisa Diaz, a Latino media consultant based in Washington, D.C., who has worked for the Democratic National Committee.

"Doing Fine?" would be more accurately translated as "Las cosas estan Bien?" Diaz said, while the proper phrase to convey "the right direction" would be "la direccion correcta," not "la buena direccion," as used in the ads. And the English idiom "Day One" would be better if phrased "El Primer Dia," not "Dia Uno," Diaz said.

"These kind of mistakes would not happen in an English-language ad," she said. "You can tell that the ads were not proofed by a native speaker."

The Romney campaign did not have an official comment on the matter.

Shaky Spanish translation has tripped up politicians before. A Twitter feed, (at)ElBloombito, mocks the Spanish-speaking attempts of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And Will Ferrell poked fun at President George W. Bush's Spanish in a "Saturday Night Live" skit. And the Republican National Committee had a misstep on its Spanish-language website last month when it was revealed that stock photos of children on the website portrayed Asian children, rather than Latinos.

But Bush and Bloomberg had effective ads targeting the Latino community. Romney doesn't yet.

"In every way, he's not really courting the Latino vote," Barreto said. "He's doing as little as possible."

That includes spending - Romney spent just $33,000 on Spanish-language ads between mid-April and mid-June in the battleground states of North Carolina and Ohio, while Obama spent $1.7 million over the same period, according to SMG-Delta. Romney trails Obama among Latino voters in battleground states by 36 points, according to a poll released last week by Latino Decisions and the left-leaning immigration reform group America's Voice.

Perhaps the Romney campaign is paying close attention to studies that show advertising in Spanish can turn off white and black voters. When white and black audiences saw ads with a Latino endorsement or in Spanish, their support for a candidate dropped, said Ricardo Ramirez, a professor of political science at Notre Dame.

"We know that appearing more inclusive by outreaching toward Latinos seems to work well for immigrants, but it seems to have a negative impact on blacks and whites," he said.

The Obama campaign has a Spanish-language website, a Twitter feed for Latinos, an English-language website targeted at Latinos and a Spanish-language website touting the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. After Obama's order that would allow young undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S., the campaign put out an ad in Spanish featuring Miami-based television personality Cristina Saralegui, who also endorsed the president.

That ad supplements two rounds of Spanish-language television commercials that had been running in the battleground states of Colorado, Nevada and Florida. They feature campaign volunteers talking about Obama policies that have affected them, including funding for Pell Grants and Head Start centers, and the Affordable Care Act.

"Under Obama's health care reform, you can't be denied insurance for pre-existing conditions," one volunteer, Elena McCullough of Tampa, Fla., says as she visits with a concerned elderly couple.

While these ads are effective because they feature Latinos and are tailored to issues such as health and education, even they fall short when compared with the nation's changing demographics, Ramirez said. The Latino population climbed by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, and in swing states such as Florida, Latinos make up 13 percent of all registered voters.

"They're doing more in English-language media than they are in Spanish," he said. "They need to step it up."

©2012 Los Angeles Times

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for GOVERNING.com. She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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