The Latino Vote: Why Mess With the ‘Metatribe’?

It’s become somewhat of a talking point at marketing conferences that Latinos are not a single monolithic entity, but rather a diverse collection of people of different cultures, interests, and political persuasions. As syndicated columnist Esther Cepeda recently wrote, anyone hoping to reach Latinos needs to ask, “which Latinos? – there are so many different kinds.” But another popular talking point – which on the surface might appear contradictory – is that Latinos tend to rally if approached the right way, or attacked the wrong way as pointed out here. So while it may be naïve to think of Latinos as a single tribe, it’s smart to think of us as a metatribe – a confederation of groups that sometimes come together, despite our differences.

Therein lies the opportunity – and the danger – for so many marketers. If you mess up, the consequences could be huge. We’re seeing this drama played out in several high-profile political campaigns – from the California gubernatorial election, to the U.S. Senator’s race in Nevada – where contestants may be paying the price for gaffes, flubs, and campaign rhetoric that compromised their standing with Latino voters. But it came as a surprise to many marketing insiders when a little known group called Latinos for Reform did something that was almost certain to rile Latinos. In a series of video and radio ad pieces, the group urged Latino voters to punish Democrats who allegedly failed to live up to their promises for immigration reform. How do voters punish Democrats? By not voting in the elections this Fall. (The group later claimed there was an un-aired version that also targeted Republicans.)

Before I go any further, let me be clear: I was among the many people that were outraged by the campaign. But I was more curious than angry. For me, the question was not “how could they?” The question was “why would they?” Why would anyone intentionally mess with the metatribe?

On the face of it, the Latinos for Reform campaign was not a success. Word of the campaign mobilized news outlets everywhere to swiftly condemn it. Latino groups across the political spectrum also weighed in negatively. And it didn’t stop there. Within days of the news, even conservatives began to distance themselves from the campaign, including Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee in the Nevada U.S. Senate race whom the ad seemed to support (though Democrats griped that her words came too late). But more damaging was the well-publicized decision at Univision – the Spanish-language media giant – to pull the ad. After that, Robert de Posada, the former director of Hispanic Affairs for the GOP, and man behind this campaign, conceded there was no point in continuing to place the ad. Univision owns his target market.

But does it really? One of the most remarkable things about de Posada’s campaign is how little the ads actually ran on TV and radio. In Nevada, a big focus for the campaign, it appears to have run only five times. And even if de Posada had chosen to run the ads more aggressively, his budget would have limited the effort significantly. The Wall Street Journal reported a surprisingly modest war chest: $125,000. Not much you can buy with that. But with a controversial story circulating widely around the Web, the YouTube Spanish and English versions of the ads have already gotten close to 150,000 views. And that’s not including all the articles, opinion pieces, and press releases that have given voice to de Posada’s claim that Democrats have betrayed Latinos.

“That’s not a bad result,” says Jose Villa, founder and president of Sensis, an LA-based ad agency. “And regardless of what you think of the campaign, it may have been an effective way to reach an important audience – acculturated Latinos who spend a lot of time on the Internet.” Villa notes that the offending words – “Don’t vote” – don’t even appear until late in the ad. For the 1:12 minutes of the English-language version, it’s more like the typical negative TV ad you’d see any night in the election season – though, of course, a lot longer (another great thing about ads on the Web).

We don’t know enough yet to give credit to de Posada for this strategy (he did not respond to our request for an interview). But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a commercial-you-never-saw was the driving force of a Web campaign. Several years ago, in an attempt to curry favor with Rolling Rock customers, Anheuser-Busch created an intentionally tasteless video that recalled the glory days of advertising for the company, the era of Spuds MacKenzie. Anheuser-Busch had just acquired Rolling Rock and realized that irony might be just the right ingredient to win over the new crowd. Rolling Rock took out billboards in major cities apologizing for airing commercials, directing people to a website. But the funny thing was that the video never aired on TV. The video lived on the Web. Result: the “commercial” – the Rolling Rock Beer Ape – was one of the most popular videos on YouTube in November 2006.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between beer and votes. And Anheuser-Busch earned more credit than scorn for the fake campaign by being funny; no one is laughing at the “Don’t vote” commercials. And the effect of baiting the metatribe – or, more precisely, linkbaiting the metatribe – did a lot to damage the reputation of de Posada’s 527 organization. But like many battles in marketing, short-term gains are all that matter to some practitioners of the art. As of this past weekend, the Nevada Senate race was too close to call. But whether voters swing to the right or to the left, no doubt we’ll soon be asking if the Beer Ape strategy had anything to do with it.

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