Ads That Say Nada


In both of his presidential runs, George W. Bush used more Spanish-language TV ads than any Republican presidential candidate before him. But it wasn’t just the language that was different. One particularly odd Spanish-language ad looked like a music video, featuring well-dressed, attractive Latinos driving around in fancy cars, hanging out with their families and singing about Bush. It was political advertising that sold the candidate like a product, as a stand-in for assimilation, family values and wealth. Bush did make inroads with Latinos—after all, he promised to tackle immigration reform—but did these sorts of ads make the difference?

In a short, dense tome analyzing the Spanish- and English-language ads aimed at Latinos during the 2000-2004 election cycles, Marisa A. Abrajano examines whether campaigns aimed specifically at Latino voters are successful, and “the consequences, if any, that ethnic political campaigns have on the political health” of Latinos. In other words, do these ads inform Latinos about the candidates and the issues, and do Latinos respond by giving them their votes? And what are the ads’ effects on our overall political knowledge and participation? The book provides empirical
evidence for our long-harbored suspicion that while candidates badly want the Latino vote, efforts at getting it are still hit-and-miss.

The back story shows how far we’ve come (or have yet to go, depending on how you look at it). When the Mexican-American War annexed northern Mexico into the U.S., it incorporated many Mexicans as well. But not until John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign does Abajano find a “documented effort aimed at the Latino electorate.” His campaign created Viva Kennedy clubs to rally Mexican-American support. It also aired the “first-ever televised Spanish-language ad” with the bilingual Jacqueline Kennedy. Efforts to win the Latino vote have exploded since. Barack Obama spent some $20 million on Latino outreach in his 2008 presidential campaign; presumably this helped garner him two-thirds of the Latino vote.

But Abrajano, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, challenges the efficacy of these ads, because Spanish- and English-language ads differ as much in content as language. Abrajano divides the 2000-2004 ads into categories ranging from complex policy ads to Latino or character ads, which feature Latino actors or highlight a candidate’s personal qualities. She studies the differences between Spanish- and English-language ads, how often and how close to the elections they air, the kinds of programs on which they air, and the effects on targeted Latinos.

She finds that Spanish ads, unlike English ones, “emphasize personal and non-policy based appeals.” She writes that, in a sense, candidates dumb down their Spanish language ads: “Because a large portion of the Latino population is relatively new to American political life, campaign messages used to target this group of voters is fairly simple and symbolic in nature, focusing more on cultural cues and references than on candidates’ policies and issue positions.”

These differences, Abrajano argues, don’t serve candidates or voters well. She finds that “candidates prefer to advertise character, Latino, and simple policy messages to a greater extent than they do complex policy statements.” This isn’t much different from Jackie Kennedy’s 1960 emotional appeal to Latinos. Decades later candidates still believe that “campaigning to immigrants based on their ethnicity or culture is effective … that such efforts signal to these ethnic groups that politicians understand them and care about them.”

What is surprising is the effect of targeted ads. As for actually mobilizing voters, the results are mixed. Yes, predominantly Spanish-speaking Latinos were inclined to vote for candidates appealing to them via simple cultural ads—but the English-language ads also attracted votes. And Abrajano finds that Latinos who view the more sophisticated English-language ads get an additional benefit–the ads actually increase their political knowledge. On the other hand, Spanish-language ads do little to inform predominantly Spanish-speaking Latinos, because the ads are so superficial. Despite being heavily targeted with 2000 and 2004 presidential ads, these Latinos “knew less about candidates’ issue positions, ideological orientations, and personal backgrounds when compared with the rest of the electorate … both before and immediately after the general election.” In other words, those who have the most to learn about the political process aren’t learning a thing from political ads.

Abrajano shows that candidates wanting to incorporate Latinos into the political process need to do more than tout personal attributes or sputter a few Spanish words. This kind of outreach creates “low levels of political interest, trust and efficacy among Spanish dominant Latinos,” writes Abrajano, and may even alienate bilingual Latinos. The question is whether politicians will take note. If candidates want to wake the “sleeping giant,” as the Latino electorate has been called, they’ve got to stop lulling it back to sleep with their political ads.


Beatriz Terrazas is a writer based in Dallas. Her work has been published in The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News, as well as in Heal, Cure and Skirt! magazines.