Q & A : A Trailblazer in Creating Ads for Latinos

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Freelance writer

* Anita Santiago, 37, president of Anita Santiago Advertising of Santa Monica.

* Claim to fame: A pioneer in advertising to the Latino community, she directs an independent agency that specializes in the country’s booming Latino market. Has won 60 major awards for advertising.

* Background: Born in New Jersey, she was raised in Cuba and Venezuela and educated in the United States. She worked for several advertising agencies in Latin America before returning to the United States in 1980, when she joined Bermudez Associates in Los Angeles. In 1987, she formed her own agency, The Hispanic Group, which recently became Anita Santiago Advertising. The firm has developed the Latino campaign for the state of California’s $28-million anti-smoking effort, as well as campaigns for See’s Candies and the Southern California Chevrolet Dealers Assn. She lives in Pacific Palisades.

* Interviewer: Free-lance writer Shawn Doherty.

Q: What is Hispanic advertising?

A: It’s an area of advertising that concentrates on people of Hispanic origin. It can be in Spanish or English, depending on whether you’re trying to reach Hispanics who are bilingual or who are Spanish-speaking. The market has been growing for years but didn’t get recognition within the industry until four or five years ago.


Q: How has growing up in two worlds helped you to understand this new market?

A: All my life I’ve been exposed to two sets of languages, educations and values. I’m sensitized to what it is like to belong to two different countries. My dad worked for Standard Oil, so I grew up in a jungle camp where people made a living catching crocodiles and selling them at the local market--so I can relate to many different types of people and understand how they see the world. That’s important in advertising, because if you’re trying to motivate somebody to do something or buy something you need to know who you are talking to. With Hispanics it’s not just a language factor but a cultural one.

Q: What are some of the memories you draw on for your work?

A: My father is an American, and my mother’s family was exiled from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. I grew up hearing stories about how my grandfather, an anti-fascist opposed to Franco, was a target. During the war, there were drive-by machine gun shootings at my family’s home, and once a bomb was delivered into my mother’s arms when she was 8 years old. It was covered with flowers and fruit, ticking. I wouldn’t be here if my mom hadn’t run to my grandmother and said, “Mom, look at what we got!”

My family left Spain for Cuba. We all lived in a big, hacienda-type ranch in Havana. My uncle was going to school with Fidel Castro. Castro was an idealistic young man then. He used to come over to visit my uncle and put his baby in the crib with me. I was 1 or 2, and we’d play--not that I remember.

Then we moved to Venezuela. It was an incredible, magical place to grow up. My parents would drive us down this little road to the river, where petroleum tankers docked. In the afternoon, after it had rained, bands of red howler monkeys howled at each other from the treetops--they sounded like lions.

Q: Why did you leave that wonderful land for Los Angeles?

A: As a professional I was living in Caracas in a male-dominated society that put limitations on talented people solely because of their gender. Every time you went out, you’d be accosted by men. And I wouldn’t have been able to own an agency down there the way I do here. I got tired of the machismo. Which is not to say machismo doesn’t exist here, but I can manage it.

Q: Well, how do you manage being a woman and being part of a minority group in the advertising world, which has a reputation for eating men alive?


A: It’s been hard. You’re constantly proving to people that despite the fact you’re a woman and a minority--or because of it--you’re damn good at what you do. You have to work extra hard to make yourself respected. Advertising is a shark’s world, and getting business is sometimes not based on just merit, but on who you know. And other tactics I wouldn’t use. So sometimes you miss out on business.

Q: Which tactics are you alluding to?

A: Well, threats. I don’t like to use this word, but blackmail. Some people get business by saying “If you don’t do a Hispanic campaign, we’ll make a big stink.”

Q: Does the fact that you didn’t want to tell me your age have anything to do with being a woman in a man’s world?

A: You have to learn to protect yourself as a woman in business. We live in such a youth-dominated society that anybody who is not a youth gets kicked into the garbage can--especially women. They assume you must be a staid old lady who can’t think youthfully. It’s also a cultural thing for me, a sensitivity Hispanics have. It’s considered offensive in Latin America to ask a woman her age.

Q: When you arrived in Los Angeles in 1980, what was the state of Latino advertising? A: I thought, you gotta be kidding. I was looking around the streets and seeing all these Hispanics, but there were just a handful of Hispanic advertising groups. Most advertisers had never even heard of the Hispanic market, or they did not give it credit as a viable market.

Q: Why not?

A: First of all, there was a problem with research. The market is so new and growing so quickly that not a lot of research exists. Secondly, until the 1991 Census came out, there was a comfortable ignorance in the industry. Advertising to Latinos has an entirely different set of rules, which makes people feel uncomfortable. A lot of people hoped it would just go away. They were ignoring a huge opportunity.


Q: And what is that opportunity?

A: Hispanics spent $173 billion (nationally) last year, and the Hispanic market is growing significantly faster than the Anglo market. Hispanics are incredibly hard-working people. Many of them hold down two or three jobs. Hispanics believe in the good life, in having things. Who doesn’t? Think of the general market 30 years ago, going back to the ‘50s. That’s where Hispanics are now--with traditional family values, and the goals of having the house and the car, education for the kids, and nice things.

Q: So it is a market of consumers. Which products do best?

A: You won’t find them saving money on food. Nor will they save money on family relations. When we worked wT, there was a Mother’s Day commercial, “Call Your Mom for Less.” That commercial was actually offensive to Hispanics. They said, “I’m not going to save a buck on my mother.”

Q: How do the advertising approaches you use for the Hispanic market differ from the approaches used for the Anglo market?

A: When the market was discovered as a hot market, it got to the point where there was this formula--when you talk to Latinos, you’ve got to put families in commercials. So all these commercials had families in them. Nothing was standing out and it was all frankly silly. Actually, to speak to Hispanics you need to always show emotion and hit an emotional chord. Good advertising in any language does that, but more so for Hispanics. There is more openness and acceptance of emotions in the Hispanic culture.

Q: Sex is a big lure in the Anglo market--blonds in bikinis, blonds in cars, blonds pigging out on ice cream. They sell. Does this pitch work with the more conservative Latino market?

A: I tread very carefully with sex and religion. Respect is also a big issue.

Q: How so?

A: This market is very sensitive to being respected. If a commercial portrays Hispanics in a negative light, it won’t work. I still see too many roles where the Hispanic plays the gang member, or the bad guy, or the lazy guy, and it infuriates me. Another problem of respect comes up when advertisers take an Anglo spot and slap a voice-over on it, and nobody takes the time to tailor it to Hispanics. There’s some very sloppy work out there.


Q: Can you give an example?

A: There was a tremendous outcry when Braniff simply translated its English slogan into Spanish. The slogan was “Fly on Leather (seats).” But translated into Spanish, it meant “fly naked.” A lot of advertisers end up wasting their money and making fools out of themselves.

Q: You got a lot of acclaim for the campaign for the 1987 movie “La Bamba.” But I hear that you had to do some wrangling to get the studio to accept your approach.

A: The way the movie was going to be promoted ignored the cultural cues the movie had. I really had to struggle to get Mexican music in there, to get the parts that would trigger the reaction: “That could be me. That could be my mom making the tortillas, that could be my mom riding the ice cream truck with a megaphone inviting the town to a party.”

Those things happen every day in Latin America, but they were not perceived as important by the studio. The studio was going with the more glitzy images. They were assuming that Hispanics knew who Ritchie Valens was. Why should they? They didn’t all grow up in the United States.

And so we had to define who Ritchie Valens was--that he was Ricardo Valenzuela, the first Hispanic rock ‘n’ roll star. A Hispanic hero! It was a tremendously successful campaign.

Q: A lot of Hispanic advertising is on Spanish TV stations. Who watches them?

A: Most people think it’s only those who speak Spanish, who are monolingual. But you have a large number of people who are bilingual and assimilated, who watch out of nostalgia.


Q: Hispanics are not one big blob but a population of different native countries and cultures. How do you pitch to such a varied audience?

A: There are two trains of thought. Some agencies think that it is always better to regionalize a campaign. And others feel that you can get it done nationally. But then you have to be very careful to not have the person dress or look like he’s from any particular country, and to use Spanish without going into a Puerto Rican or a Cuban or Argentine or Mexican accent. So that it is a universal commercial in Spanish that everybody can identify with.

Q: You are working on a state campaign to educate minority communities about the dangers of smoking. What strategy are you using for Hispanics?

A: More than anything we keyed in on dramatic and emotional elements. We look at the psychology of things, and try to stay away from high-techy arguments. Our Anglo counterparts wanted to use a very sophisticated approach that I just didn’t feel comfortable with. They highlighted the predatory nature of the tobacco industry. But it’s not believable to position the industry as the bad guys, because (companies like) Philip Morris put a lot of money and support and scholarships into the Hispanic community. We have to start at Step 1. With health issues, you put out one drop of information and people absorb it, because there is such a lack of information. So we are giving Hispanics basic information about the risks.

Q: Another industry pouring big bucks into minority communities is the liquor industry. Do you take any position on the controversial targeting of minority communities by liquor and tobacco industries?

A: I won’t work for (them). A lot of these companies are targeting the Hispanic community, and it’s just not something I feel comfortable with. I don’t want to sound like a prude, but when someone is preying on someone’s ignorance, that really gets me. There is a tremendous alcoholism problem in the Hispanic community. I don’t want to promote that.


Q: The tobacco industry presents smoking as a way to be cool and fit in and be American. How do you counter those powerful images? And, here’s another cultural hurdle: How do you deal with the Latino male who does not want to be told what to do?

A: This is something that I battle with. I’m giving away all my secrets! You do not use a confrontational approach. For example, many women are often subject to second-degree smoke from their husbands. Due to family dynamics, women can’t tell their husbands to stop smoking. But they can leave magazines around the house so their husband will see them and read them. We’re doing a print ad, for example, that shows an obviously distressed man smoking a cigarette in a waiting room. The doctor is saying, Mr. Rivas, your baby has problems. And then there’s a list of health problems associated with smoking. So the message is, “Your smoking also affects your family.” That’s an indirect approach so heavily charged with emotion that it haunts the person.

Q: I understand that fronting is a common problem for minority firms. What is it? A: What’s going on is that a lot of companies request minority certification and they’re not really minorities. (Another common problem is) agencies go in and they say to the client, we can handle the whole thing for you, and they don’t even surface the issue of Hispanics. But then they turn around and call people like me and ask for help.

Q: And what do you say to them?

A: If it’s going to be as an equal partner, I would look at it. But not if I’m being asked to hide behind the general market agencies.

Q: Which you have been asked to do.

A: Yes. And I’ve refused. Why should I?

Q: Why do you work in Santa Monica?

A: Santa Monica is being perceived as being the creative center of Los Angeles. More and more advertising companies are making plans to move out here. It’s just a funky place. It’s near the ocean, it’s close to home and it’s close to the airport. There’s a variety of fun shops--clients want to come here and go over and have an ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s. (Working here) leads to a loosening of thinking, instead of working out of a gray and white 18-story building downtown.