Hispanic Youth Treads Difficult Path

Coming of age is a complicated matter in even the simplest of circumstances. It’s that much more complex, naturally, when the country in which you’re becoming an adult isn’t the one in which your parents (or you) were born.

That’s the theme of a report released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center, under the title “Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America.” The report’s findings have significant implications for the way marketers address Hispanic 16-25-year-olds in the U.S. — a cohort that numbers some 7.5 million and accounts for 18 percent of all U.S. residents in that age bracket.


As the report says, this is a life stage at which Hispanics in the U.S. “navigate the intricate, often porous borders between the two cultures they inhabit — American and Latin American.” Based on polling conducted in August and September, the report goes on to say “it is clear that many of today’s Latino youths, be they first or second generation, are straddling two worlds as they adapt to the new homeland.” It finds the survey’s respondents exhibiting “attitudes and behaviors that, throughout history, have often been associated with the immigrant experience.” The twist in the story is that, as the report emphasizes, “most Latino youths are not immigrants. Two-thirds were born in the U.S., many of them descendants of the big, ongoing wave of Latin American immigrants who began coming to this country around 1965.”

The survey finds ethnicity outranking current country of residence in the way Hispanic 16-25-year-olds perceive themselves. One question in the polling gave respondents a choice of terms and asked them to cite the one they use first to identify themselves — by their family’s country of origin, as Hispanic or Latino, or as American. A majority (52 percent) said they describe themselves first by familial country of origin, while 20 percent said they first identify themselves as Hispanic/Latino. Twenty-four percent said “American” is the one of these terms they use first.


Even among the poll’s second-generation respondents (i.e., those born in the U.S., but with at least one foreign-born parent), just 33 percent said they choose “American” over the other options as their primary self-identification. A plurality of the second-generation respondents (41 percent) first identify themselves by their family’s country of origin; 21 percent use “Hispanic/Latino” first. “Only in the third and higher generations do a majority of Hispanic youths (50 percent) use ‘American’ as their first term of self-description,” says the report.

None of this makes things simple for companies that aim to sell their wares to Hispanic teens and young adults. Do marketers need to be wary of sounding an “American” theme in speaking to this audience? “Not necessarily,” says Christopher Campos, vp and managing director in the New York office of Bravo, an agency that specializes in addressing the Hispanic market. “The ‘American’ theme is not a turn-off. Clearly, America has changed. Young Latinos are growing up, adapting and influencing the world around them — they are defining what America is today.”


At home, says Campos, their “Latino personality” is defined. But they’re influenced by a range of social factors in the wider world. “It is in this outside environment that he/she is exposed to other influences and starts learning and growing from those experiences,” says Campos. “Eventually, the young Latino contributes to the culture around him, converges with the American culture, and new identities arise. Thus, the American theme is part of what they experience, what is shaping them and what they are helping create everyday.”

Then again, if ethnicity looms larger than current country of residence in the way young Hispanics in the U.S. see themselves, that doesn’t mean it trumps their sense of themselves as people. “Hispanics are people first and Hispanics second like Americans,” notes Sergio Alcocer, president and chief creative officer of Austin, Texas-based agency LatinWorks. “You don’t do ‘American advertising.’ The concept is too vague and does not personalize the communication.” 


Laura Sonderup, director of Denver-based ad agency Hispanidad, makes a similar point when asked whether marketers should steer clear of an explicitly American theme in addressing Hispanic 16-25-year-olds. “When we reflect on the development of a relevant, results-oriented campaign message targeting any young adults, I doubt that an ‘explicitly American theme’ would be effective, unless the client is a branch of the military or a related category,” she says. “Instead, it is far more effective to speak to these influential young consumers about the things that are important to them in their lives and the thinking that influences their buying behaviors.” And while their exposure to mainstream American culture means young Hispanics will be different from their parents’ generation, she says, “they still won’t act, or think, like their general-market counterparts. So it will be important to speak to their roots in a meaningful and relevant way.”

If there are pitfalls in using a generically “American” approach to this audience, the precedence of familial country of origin in their self-perception means a generically Hispanic/Latino approach might present its own challenges. The Pew report makes it plain that young Hispanics are skeptical of any notion of a monolithic “Hispanic culture” in this country. “By a ratio of about 2-to-1,” says the report, “young Hispanics say there are more cultural differences (64 percent) than commonalities (33 percent) within the Hispanic community in the U.S.”


Does this mean Hispanic 16-25-year-olds will be left cold by advertising that addresses them broadly as Hispanic or Latino? Campos thinks not. “Advertising that addresses that broader Hispanic population will not alienate those that self-identify with a specific country of origin,” he says. “That is because an individual, in this case a young Latino, will naturally first self-identify with national character — that of their parents. Secondarily, the young Latino will then self-identify with ethnicity, which in this case is the broader Hispanic/Latino. Thus, when advertising addresses the broader group, the U.S. Latino population, the young Latino does in fact [for the most part] self-identify and will not feel excluded.”

In any case, advertisers may have little choice in the matter. “In a perfect world,” says Sonderup, “we would be able to develop campaigns and messaging based on very specific criteria like country of origin. However, most clients need to speak to a much broader audience in order to stretch their marketing budgets. And although Hispanic young adults are attitudinally and linguistically different, they still tend to set trends, particularly within many urban centers, and I think that speaking to this influence can be just as effective. Likewise, it is essential to remember that many factors contribute to the consumer’s perception of who they are — not just their country of origin — and if you can speak to these factors in a relevant way, you are more likely to see results.”


Language introduces another complication, though, into the ways marketers speak to this audience. Based on its polling, the Pew report classifies 36 percent of the Hispanic 16-25-year-olds as “English dominant,” 41 percent as “bilingual” and 23 percent as “Spanish dominant.” As you’d expect, the figures vary depending on whether the person is first generation or more rooted in the U.S. “Among foreign-born Latinos ages 16 to 25, just 48 percent say they can speak English very well or pretty well,” says the report. “Among their native-born counterparts, that figure doubles to 98 percent.”

But these disparities aren’t the whole story. “For both native-born and foreign-born young Hispanics, the boundaries between English and Spanish are permeable,” says Pew’s report. “Seven in 10 say that when speaking with family members and friends, they often or sometimes use a hybrid known as ‘Spanglish’ that mixes words from both languages.” Twenty-three percent of respondents reported using Spanglish “most of the time” when speaking with family and friends.

“Language usage, especially among young Latinos, is a matter of choice for self-identification,” notes Campos. “It is a way to self-proclaim their heritage. In their lives, language is a means to expression, and depending on how or what they want to express, they’ll either do it in Spanish or in English or a mix of both.” Of course, these factors have implications for marketers’ media choices in addressing this audience. “There are media that reach these young Latinos in both English and Spanish, and Spanglish — mun2, MTV3, SiTV and a myriad of local radio stations throughout the nation, like La Mega here in New York City,” says Campos. “Therefore, relevance is not so much in the language but in the context of the advertising and whether they see themselves and their lifestyles reflected in the advertising.”


Indeed, marketers should bear in mind that the simple fact of addressing consumers in Spanish (or Spanglish) would not suffice to create a rapport with them. “One of the main opportunities we have as Hispanic marketers is that of breaking the myth of language as the only way to effectively reach the Hispanic population,” says Alcocer. “The growth of the population projected to come from U.S. births rather than immigration, and the explosion of Hispanic youth as a source of business, will force the industry to understand that language should be a tactic and never a strategy.”

Sonderup points to a consideration that may be overlooked by a company eager to address young Hispanics in Spanish: Will the company be able to sustain the conversation beyond a Spanish-language ad? “Because many companies in this country are still relatively new to Hispanic marketing, I would suggest that it is more important to ensure that a company has the internal capability to serve a Hispanic consumer in Spanish before tackling this question,” she says. “If my client cannot serve a consumer in the consumer’s language of choice, then it is my responsibility as their agency to support their efforts to reach the consumer in a relevant, meaningful and results-oriented way in English first — understanding, of course, that many consumers will be unable or unwilling to respond to English advertising. Moreover, it is also my responsibility as a marketing partner to help the client identify opportunities for partnering with bilingual call centers, etc., to ensure that they can fully and effectively communicate with Hispanic consumers in future campaigns.”


Amid all the differences among Hispanic 16-25-year-olds, a youthful optimism and satisfaction with life are widely shared characteristics. When asked how satisfied they are “with your life overall,” 50 percent of the Pew survey’s respondents said they’re “very satisfied” and another 45 percent “mostly satisfied.” Seventy-two percent expect to be better off financially than their parents, vs. just 4 percent expecting to be worse off.

And this provides a comparatively unambiguous opening for marketers in addressing Hispanic young people in the U.S. “Aside from country of origin and language preference, there is a trait for the immigrant experience,” says Alcocer. “In the case of Latino youth, I’m interested in exploring themes around the rise of the underdog, meaning the surprise factor of coming from behind and winning against all odds. I reject advertising that relies on connecting via nostalgia to the home country. Latinos came to look for a brighter future, and brands that help them get there will triumph.”


Campos concurs in this view. “Aspiration, success and upward mobility are key trigger points for this group,” he says. “Especially in immigrant-parent households, one needs to recognize that the parents left the motherland to seek opportunities for their children. Thus, young Latinos born in the U.S. have firsthand experience on what it takes to succeed.”

And, he adds, they’re better positioned to do so than their parents were, which means they “carry with them a sense of responsibility to succeed. From a cultural standpoint, young Latinos have more long-term orientation than their parents did or ever will have, and planning for the future is something that is certainly top of mind. Creating advertising that taps into this sense of empowerment and success is very powerful and well received.” Sonderup adds a note of caution, though, about pursuing this approach: “It must be done with a sense of respect and appreciation for the hardships that have been endured by parents and grandparents.”

If a sense of obligation to the older generation is a trait widely shared among young Hispanics, so is an element of the youthful rebelliousness that’s a near-universal part of coming of age. And this, too, can give marketers a point of connection with these consumers. But it must be used in the right way.

“Rebelliousness means different things to different categories of teens,” notes Sonderup. “And while I do not think that themes of disobedience, defiance and insubordination would be particularly effective with this demographic, I do believe that a lighter approach could be very successful, i.e., ‘This is not your father’s’ fill in the blank. Make it your own.”

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