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Spanish Ads On English TV? An Experiment

A TV commercial for Vehix.com, featuring a Hispanic couple and with Spanish dialogue, has been appearing on English-language cable channels in the area.
A TV commercial for Vehix.com, featuring a Hispanic couple and with Spanish dialogue, has been appearing on English-language cable channels in the area. (Morey Evans Advertising)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

On a recent Monday night, during the back-to-back wrestling shows "WWE Raw" and "WWE Raw Zone" on the cable's Spike TV, David Carcamo saw a commercial. The for-the-boys programming on Spike, it must be said, is in English. The 30-second commercial, touting the auto Web site Vehix.com, however, was in Spanish.

"I was like, ' What?!' " says Carcamo, 18, a senior at Cardozo High School in Northwest Washington. He understood the commercial, no problem there. But a Spanish spot on an English-language channel? "Maybe the antenna was off. Or something. Maybe it was just a mistake," he wondered.

"I was confused when I first saw it," says his friend, Sergio Romero, 19, also a senior at Cardozo. Like Carcamo, he's bilingual. "I thought I accidentally changed the channel to Telemundo."

They laugh.

Vehix.com., a one-stop shop for car buyers, is using the Washington area -- home to an affluent, diverse, growing Latino community -- to conduct an experiment: running a Spanish-speaking commercial on cable channels such as Spike, Nick at Nite, FX and Sci Fi, to name a few. The first ad, put on the air in February, features a bald, chubby actor and a Spanish voice-over. Three weeks ago, it began to be replaced by an ad featuring Latino actors speaking in Spanish. Either way, the result is more eye-catching than reading a flier in English on one side and Spanish on the other about a yard sale in Columbia Heights. Andrew Ward, a vice president at Comcast Spotlight, the advertising division of the nation's largest cable provider, says these are the only Spanish ads on English channels of which he knows.

The Salt Lake City-based Vehix is also running English-language ads on cable in an attempt to compete with bigger auto sales Web sites such as Automotive.com and AutoTrader.com. But money also speaks en Español , and marketing to Latinos has gotten more complex. "When a lot of people talk about the Hispanic market, they really mean the Spanish-speaking market, which is only a part of the market," says Jeff Valdez, co-founder and chairman of Sí TV, a Los Angeles-based channel whose slogan is "Speak English, Live Latin."

"When you speak in that limited term -- Spanish TV for Hispanics -- you're only reaching a segment of a very big population," Valdez says.

Not every Latino is watching channels such as the Spanish versions of ESPN, Discovery Channel and CNN, says Chris Satovick, vice president of consumer and dealer products for Vehix. There's a generational gap at work, and it's symbolized by the Carcamo family. David's parents, Lucy and Tereso Carcamo, emigrated from El Salvador. Mom works at the Hotel Washington; Dad's a custodian downtown. They speak to their sons, David and Danny, in Spanish, but the boys, born and raised in the United States, answer in English or Spanish. Or Spanglish.

Sure, their mother catches Cristina Saralegui -- the Oprah Winfrey of Spanish TV -- on Univision, but her 18-year-old and 10-year-old sons opt for "South Park" on Comedy Central. The family rarely watches the same shows together.

"We know, because of the research we've done and everything we've seen, that there are a lot of bilingual TV watchers and that they're watching English channels," says Satovick. His firm prides itself as a "road map to the automotive world." On its site you can post an ad selling your car, find a used or a new car, read vehicle reviews of used and new cars, etc., and it's affiliated with more than 1,500 car dealerships in the country, 51 of them in the Washington area. The crossover ads are working, Satovick says. On the company's Web site, there's a Spanish-speaking module -- a voice-over piece -- and in the past two months the number of users clicking on that module has increased, Satovick says.

"It's still less than 5 percent of our total users -- more than 30,000 unique users check out Vehix.com per month -- but the increase has been more than 300 percent," he says, adding that the company is looking to expand the TV commercial experiment to other cities such as Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta.

There's also been a bit of a backlash, he admits; a number of consumers have written to the site's customer feedback e-mail address. Satovick paraphrases them: Last time I checked, this is America; English is spoken here. Whether he's losing Anglo customers isn't clear, though he is convinced he's gaining Latino ones.

"It isn't at all surprising what that car company is trying to do. No market is black or white. Only English. Only Spanish," says Raul Cano-Rogers, president of the Washington area's Ibero American Chamber of Commerce. "You can't just say, 'I'm gonna do it in English because everybody speaks in English.' You can't just say, 'I'm gonna do it Spanish because Hispanics only want to hear Spanish.' It's complicated."

Indeed, even though David Carcamo has seen the commercial often, each time it grabs his attention. It hits him harder, he says, not because it is in Spanish but because it is in Spanish on an English channel.

"I guess that's what they" -- meaning the advertisers -- "think they gotta do to keep up with us," he says.

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