What's in the Melting Pot?

  |  November 15, 2010   |  Comments

A federal study on Latino longevity, and what marketers of all kinds can take from it.

Did you hear the news - widely reported earlier this fall - that Latinos outlive most of the U.S. population? If you are Latino, I'm sure it made your day. I've been following the chatter on Twitter - the party is still going strong - and the big vibe, of course, is ethnic pride. But if you are a marketer - or a marketer who happens to be Latino - perhaps you were confused, skeptical, or curious to learn more.

Truth is, we should all be curious. The news was based on a recently published study by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, and it happens to be the first federally-funded study on Latino life expectancy. The implications for marketing - across a broad range of sectors - are profound. But if we aren't confused (Latinos live longer - huh?), we should at least be skeptical. Because the "Latinos Live Longer" headline obscures several things that could be helpful to marketers.

The little ingredients. The big headline was supported by the big number in the survey. The life expectancy of Latinos born in 2006 is 80.6 years, versus 77.7 for the general population. It begs the question (and many people asked it), how can this be when there are more than three times as many Latinos as there are whites below the poverty level? This is known as the "Latino Paradox," and there are several competing explanations for it. Many reporters cited the theory that immigrants - just one segment of the population - live longer because they're rougher, tougher, eat less, and smoke less (and some even drink less, too). Who knows, but one thing's for sure - the 80.6 number is a big number that needs to be unbundled. It's an aggregate of smaller numbers about diverse segments - young, old, rich, poor, man, woman, first generation, second generation, etc. - that have far greater value to marketing people.

The melting pot. One of the smaller numbers is attached to Latinos who are born in the U.S. This, of course, begins with the second generation of immigrants who spend significantly more time in the melting pot, and get the good and the bad from that experience. Let's look at the bad. A number of studies show that Latinos born in the U.S. fare worse, and are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. What's in the melting pot? Perhaps something toxic. But even if that were not true, marketers might have an opportunity to promote the good things that immigrant Latinos put into the melting pot…for the benefit of the entire population. "We might want to see what Hispanics are doing and try to emulate them," said Carl Haub, in an interview for USA Today. Perhaps. But maybe we should be emulating immigrant Latinos or promoting traditional - pre-melting pot - Latino values. There's a precedent for this in recent Latino marketing. The NBA and Volkswagen have launched campaigns aimed at both general and Latino audiences promoting values that run deep in large parts of Latino culture (passion, cunning, thrift). We haven't seen this kind of marketing in food, healthcare, or government - the immediate markets that can leverage the data from the CDC study - but perhaps we will soon.

The Latino social network. There's another theory why Latinos - I mean, some Latinos - live longer. A few of the many experts who weighed in on the CDC story observed that Latinos, in general, enjoy stronger social bonds. The impact on health is meaningful. "The people across the board who live oldest and healthiest are people who are part of social networks," said Dr. Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, in an interview with ABC News. And of course, the reverse is true. "If you lose that family connectedness, then you tend to have more health problems," said Delgado. It brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," the 2008 book about why some people do better than others. In the opening chapter, he investigates a Pennsylvania town where the incidence of heart disease is dramatically lower than surrounding environments. What he discovered was a tightly bound community of Italian immigrants who replicated the lifestyle of their town - Roseto Valfortore - in the old country. Yes, the social network matters. For Gladwell, who vastly prefers offline to online networks (read his recent essay on the limits of Twitter as a tool for social change), the social network is more of the Roseto variety - a flesh-and-blood, brick-and-mortar community. But for innovators in digital media who understand that virtual life can strengthen "real" life, there may be a big opportunity. It wouldn't be the first time the digital world found a way to do well by doing good. But it could be the first in the name of Latino longevity, which - thanks to the CDC - is now legendary. That would be good not only for Latinos, but for everyone else who stews in the melting pot.

Giovanni is off today. This column was originally published Nov. 15, 2010.

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Giovanni  Rodriguez

Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.

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