WASHINGTON – Reaching Hispanic voters through political advertising involves more than just translating hello to "Hola!"
Ads targeted at the nation's fastest-growing minority group and, arguably, the most volatile voting bloc have become increasingly sophisticated, covering issues beyond immigration and civil rights and including elements of the Hispanic culture.
Republican and Democratic ad makers and strategists say Spanish translations of English ads aren't as effective as "culturally sensitive" commercials about how education, jobs and health care — the main concerns among Hispanics — will improve their lives.
And, consultants say, Hispanics want to see their communities in ads, as well as politicians trying to understand their lives, including speaking their language.
"You have to be much more personal. They have to like you," said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster.
The challenge for ad makers is reaching all Hispanic voters while trying to avoid alienating certain subgroups, such as Puerto Ricans, Argentineans or Brazilians by running ads that contain, for example, a dialect that is Mexican.
However, such diversity also allows politicians to target specific groups. For example, a Democratic radio ad running in Florida has a salsa flair to appeal to Central American voters, while a similar spot being cut for Southwest states will have a ranchero beat preferable to Mexicans.
Unlike Democrats, Republicans have tailored ads to Hispanics since the 1970s, which some say has helped the GOP chip away at the Democratic hold on the Hispanic vote. Republican George W. Bush got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, up from 1996 when GOP nominee Bob Dole had 21 percent, according to exit polls.
In 2000, Bush and the Republican National Committee ran unprecedented levels of Hispanic TV ads. One showed Bush's telegenic Mexican-American nephew, George P. Bush, telling viewers that his uncle believes in "opportunity for every American, for every Latino." Some say it was among the first political ads to seek a personal connection with Hispanics.
The 2002 Texas gubernatorial race continued the trend.
Gov. Rick Perry appeared in a TV ad in colonias — small border communities mostly populated by immigrants. Flanked by residents, Perry walked down a road paved because of his efforts to finance the project as local activist Rosie De Leija called the governor "a man of his word."
Likewise, Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez danced to Tejano music at a Mexican restaurant and talked with cowboy-hat-wearing Hispanics on a dusty ranch in an ad. Several Mexican colloquialisms also were used, including Sanchez saying: "They're going to see how the sausage sizzles and that this rooster will crow for all the people of Texas."
Jim Learned, who runs a Hispanic ad agency in Washington, said emotional connections are paramount for Hispanics. "Otherwise, any message is going to fall on deaf ears," he explained.
That's what Democrats say they failed to see in 2000. Then, party nominee Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee ran only a fraction of the ads the GOP did. The commercials largely were straight translations of issue-focused ads run late in the campaign.
This year is different. In March, the New Democrat Network, a group of centrist Democrats, launched a $5 million TV and radio ad campaign in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona created specifically for Hispanics by Hispanics. And, presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry recently hired a Hispanic ad agency to create upcoming Spanish ads.
Frank Guerra, a San Antonio ad maker working for Bush, said the GOP's advertising efforts over the years have ensured Hispanic voters no long are invisible. "We've woken up the Democrats, and the big winner is the Hispanic voters in America," he said.
So far this year, Bush's Spanish ads have been closely aligned with his English commercials. However, there still are subtle, but important, nuances between versions.
A Spanish ad on education shows pictures of Hispanic children and eliminates the English version's talk of schools needing "well-qualified teachers" because ad makers feared the reference could be seen as an attack on teachers, whom Hispanics revere. Bush's ad makers say more specific Hispanic ads will come later.
Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, says the fact that more thought is going into political ads for Hispanic voters means one thing: "They're all starting to take us seriously."