Advertisers using Spanglish to appeal, get attention
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Feb. 9, 2006
FORT WORTH, Texas - A commercial during a recent break of "Will and Grace"
featured an almond-eyed, olive-skinned family of five sitting down at the
breakfast table to bowls full of Cheerios.
The family eagerly passes the milk, and a chubby infant looks on from a high
"?Esta rico?" (Is it good?) the father asks the infant.
"Gracias," the oldest son says as his sister hands him the cereal box.
To many viewers, the Spanish phrases may have been unfamiliar throughout the
otherwise English advertisement. But they caught the attention of Oscar
Barillas, a 38-year-old financial adviser who lives in Keller, Texas.
"I was like, wait, I am watching English TV, " said Barillas, who moved from
Guatemala 15 years ago and watches a mix of English and Spanish television.
"The Spanish words really got my full attention."
That is what advertisers had in mind. Known to marketing experts and linguists
as "code-switching," the technique is probing an undertapped market of bilingual
consumers largely overlooked until recently, they say.
That target audience enjoys the "Spanglish" blend of English and Spanish words
Campaigns targeting young Hispanics aim to tap into the fastest-growing minority
group in the country. The Hispanic population is expected to reach
42 million by 2007. An estimated 96 percent of them speak Spanish. Their
purchasing power was estimated at $700 billion in 2005 and is expected to hit
$928 billion by 2007, according to the Association of Hispanic Advertising
During the Super Bowl, Toyota aired a bilingual commercial in which a Hispanic
father is driving his young son in their new hybrid Camry.
When the father explains how the hybrid car switches between gas and electric
power, the son compares it to the way his father can switch between English and
Spanish. He tells his son that he bought the car for the same reason he learned
to speak English: to better the son's future.
"Overall, we are really trying to capture a creative voice for the Hispanic
market," said Catarino Lopez, chief creative officer of Bromley Communications,
a San Antonio-based advertising agency. "The use of Spanglish is really taking
off. Young kids are trying to create their own language."
Sijefredo Loa, a sociolinguistics professor at Baylor University, calls the
trend "the result of languages in contact," a phenomenon similar to the German
and Hebrew hybrid language known as Yiddish.
Wordplay happens when an English word is given a Spanish twist, or when Spanish
words are used in a sentence with English words.
"The young have always influenced popular language, in vocabulary, work
formation and sentence structure," Loa said. "Thus, it is not surprising that
the young who know two languages would blend these two to create their own
expression of the times. ...
"Using this blend is a social marker that says you belong to that speech
community, and belonging is very important. Just like when Texans insist on that
twang and word choice to let everyone know that they are Texans."
Bromley - known for edgy advertisements, most of which are geared toward
Hispanics - was the first to run a Spanish advertisement on an English
television network. The spot featured Latin pop singer Selena in the early 1990s
after a Latin awards show. Slowly, networks and corporations became more open to
the idea of Spanglish, Bromley spokeswoman Deborah Vallejo said.
"The stations are relaxing more, and clients are understanding that it's not so
clear-cut between English and Spanish," Vallejo said.
Bromley played off the two languages in a 2004 ad campaign for Coors Light on a
series of cryptic West Coast billboards that read, "What's the wave ox?"
Two weeks later Bromley added a banner to the signs that translated the slogan
literally into Spanish: "?Que onda guey?" or essentially, "What's up, dude?"
The campaign illustrated the humorous clash among languages when phrases are
"People thought it was a brain teaser, and were trying to figure it out,"
Lopez said. "It created a huge buzz for Coors."
Such ads aren't for everybody.
The language play is often rejected by the older "Puritan-type" generation of
Hispanics, said Bromley's chief strategy officer, J. Moncada.
For the purist, the Spanish word "guey" can be an insult and imply idiocy, but
for many young Hispanics it is an everyday way to express camaraderie, experts
"We honor the audience by speaking in a code that respects them and is easy for
them to embrace," said Patti Alvey of the Temerlin Advertising Institute at
Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Advertisers understand where audiences
are and the languages that resonate with them."
Oniver Padron, a 37-year-old Arlington, Texas, businessman, would like to see
more commercials that incorporate Spanish and English and more of them during
prime-time television, not just inserted around Latino programming.
"Sometimes the commercials portray us negatively," Padron said. "I like the ones
where they show us in positions of power like bankers and stockbrokers.
We are those people, too."
Yet the phenomenon may pass quickly. Moncada said advertisers are only
successful as long as the ads feel "organic." But within six to eight months,
code-switching could be overdone.
"Once consumers feel manipulated, it's better to find something else,"
Moncada said. "Keep it very real, and don't force-fit it."