Mobilizing the Latino Vote: 'The Language Is the Message'

  |  August 23, 2011   |  Comments

What language do you use to mobilize bilingual voters? Surprise results from a recent study.

When your target audience is three-quarters bilingual, what's the best language to use to get out the vote? The answer, of course, is "it depends." It depends on which slice of the vote you are aiming for, and which language they prefer. But according to a recent study reported in American Politics Research, one language might actually be more effective if the strategy is to appeal to the voter's civic pride.

Authors Marisa Abrajano and Costas Panagopoulos - professors at the University of California San Diego and Fordham University, respectively - found that Latinos were more likely to vote when approached with messages in English. While Latinos with a "low-propensity" to vote and who prefer Spanish were more motivated to vote after receiving the same messages in Spanish, Latinos in the aggregate were more receptive to the messages in English.

The study deserves attention for at least two reasons. First, while it's not clear what one might generally conclude from the results, the idea that a certain type of message could be more effective in English should be of great interest to politicians in the upcoming season. Latinos continue to lag in voter turnout (roughly 50 percent versus 66 percent for the general public), yet they represent one of the most coveted ethnic groups in national elections. Anything that can credibly reduce the complexity of marketing to this diverse group will be welcome. Second, the idea could be just as compelling to general marketers. In what instances would English be more effective in mobilizing Latino consumers?

The Medium

With apologies to Marshall McLuhan - the fabled communications theorist who gave us the phrase "the medium is the message" - I'd like to offer a simple framework for evaluating the application of the "English First" rule.

The study is based on an analysis of an experiment in 2009 during a special election in New York City. Citing a study that demonstrates that direct mail "can be as effective as door-to-door canvassing if the messages in these mailers prime voters to consider civic duty as well as place a certain amount of social pressure on them," the authors set up the study using two experimental groups - one that received postcards in Spanish and the other that received postcards in English - and a control group that received no postcards at all. Before looking at what the postcards said, it is interesting to note that the study relied on direct, private communication with voters. And while direct mail was the precise tool in this study, there are other forms of direct communication that marketers might consider in campaigns.

The Message

Of course, what the postcards said was at least as interesting as the postcards themselves. In a rather terse and authoritative tone, the cards stated that voting is "a matter of public record" and that the recipient "did not vote in the last elections." It then went on to urge the recipient to do her "civic duty" and vote. Recall what the authors of the report said about the success of mailers that "prime voters to consider civic duty as well as place a certain amount of social pressure on them." Well, put yourself in the place of a Latino or another ethnic group, and ask how you feel about this kind of "pressure." While I cannot speak for all Latinos, it's fair to guess the message carried a bit of heavy-handed authority. And if you trust the results of the study (I do), a fair conclusion is that authority worked in this instance. Both experimental groups turned up in greater numbers than the control group in the special election.

The Language

But why did the English control group (4.72 percent voted) outperform the Spanish control group (3.78 percent voted)? Well, this is the central question in this story. For the benefit of both English and Spanish readers, I'm reproducing the copy on both postcards here:

Postcard copy (English version):

Dear Registered Voter:


Why do so many people fail to vote? We've been talking about the problem for years, but it only seems to get worse.

This year, we're taking a different approach. We are reminding people that who votes is a matter of public record.

Official voter records indicate YOU DID NOT VOTE in the last local elections held in November 2005.

On February 24, 2009, a special election will be held in your district to fill a vacancy on the New York City Council. You are eligible to vote.


The Vote New York Project

Postcard copy (Spanish version):

Estimado Votante Registrado:


Por qué mucha gente no se presenta a votar? Esta cuestión ha sido motivo dedebate durante muchos años; sin embargo en los últimos tiempos la situación ha empeorado.

Este año, hemos decido adoptar una estrategia diferente. Le recordamos a la gente que el registro de votantes es público.

De acuerdo con los registros oficiales Ud. NO ha votado en la elección local de Noviembre de 2005.

El 24 de Febrero de 2009, se llevará a cabo una elección especial para cubrir una vacante en el consejo municipal de la ciudad de Nueva York, y Ud. Está habilitado para votar.

Cumpla con su deber cívico—¡VOTE!

El proyecto ¡Vote Nueva York!

Again, I can't help but feel that the postcards were interpreted as an aggressive, perhaps threatening, yet somewhat effective communiqué from governmental authorities. And it's easy to see how a marketer might conclude that pressure is an effective tool. Still, I wonder if the English-language version was seen not so much as a "message from the man" (in the man's native tongue), as an appeal to national unity in the language that binds us all. That might be a stretch. But for politicians hoping to sway the Latino vote in the next 16 months - and for general marketers hoping to tap the famous $1.3 trillion Latino market - weighing pressure against appeals for unity may soon become a pastime. The question is, which approach will win?

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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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