DAN TURNER

Staff Reporter

An unusual advertising experiment in which a Spanish-language commercial aired on local English-language TV has resulted in a number of angry phone calls, letters and e-mails and is raising new concerns about the practicality of using traditional broadcast means to market to Latino viewers.

Chevron Corp. took a commercial originally created for the Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, added English subtitles, and ran it for a week in late May on several English-language stations in Los Angeles, including KNBC-TV Channel 4, Fox Sports West and KCBS-TV Channel 2.

San Francisco-based Chevron was hoping to reach L.A.'s huge population of bilingual Latinos, with officials saying last month that the commercial made good business sense. But Chevron executives are now referring all calls to company spokeswoman Bonnie Chaikind, who has downplayed the reactions.

"We did get some comments from people who were not happy, and we did get some from people who really enjoyed the commercial," Chaikind said. While not citing the specific number of complaints, she conceded that the unhappy responses outnumbered the happy ones.

For a retail-driven company like Chevron, even a small number of complaints in a market as important as Southern California could give executives pause and perhaps discourage other such experiments.

Bill Imada, president of downtown L.A.-based Imada Wong Communications, says he called Chevron officials earlier this month to congratulate them on running the spot only to be told that the reaction had been disastrous.

"The comments were things like, 'This is the United States, this isn't Mexico,' and 'If I wanted to hear Spanish, I'd go to a foreign country,' " said Imada. His agency develops campaigns targeting Asian Americans, but he feels that all ethnic marketers have joint interests.

In e-mail messages and letters, viewers threatened to tear up their Chevron cards or boycott the stations if the company continued running the commercials, Imada said. Indeed, many of the favorable responses cited by Chaikind appear to have come from L.A.'s ethnic marketers.

After hearing about the vitriolic messages received by Chevron, Imada began an e-mail campaign urging fellow marketers to write the company in support of the commercial, and he says a large number responded.

"It shocked me," Imada said. "I was expecting people to be a little more tolerant in L.A. We live in a community where 40 percent of the population is Hispanic."

The commercial is no longer running in Los Angeles, although Chaikind said there were never any plans to air it for more than a week. While newspaper reports in mid-May said the company was planning to monitor viewer reaction and roll out the spot later this year in San Diego, Houston and Miami all large Hispanic markets Chaikind now says that Chevron never made such plans. She says no decisions have been made, and it's unclear whether the commercial will ever air again.

Officials with the ad agency that created the commercial, the Bravo Group in San Francisco, did not return calls. Local TV executives acknowledged receiving a few phone calls in response to the commercial, but said they referred all callers to Chevron.

Until recently, marketing efforts targeting L.A.'s English- and Spanish-speaking audiences have been separate and decidedly unequal. Spanish TV and radio stations like KMEX-TV Channel 34 and KLVE-FM 107.5 often lead the market in ratings, but because advertisers believe Latinos have less spending power, the stations charge less for commercial time than English-language stations with smaller audiences.

In recent months, there has been a growing recognition among advertisers that most L.A. Latinos are bilingual. Further, market research indicates that bilingual Latinos are financially better off than those who speak only Spanish making them a desirable market segment to reach.

KCBS, which aired the Spanish-language Chevron commercial during "60 Minutes," recently agreed to test a group of late-night series and specials being produced by Si TV, a Hollywood company that specializes in Latino-themed programming. The shows will air starting at 1:30 a.m., and will be broadcast in English.

Ethnic marketers long have felt that the often blond, white-skinned pitchmen and women on mainstream commercials aren't talking to Latinos even those who are bilingual.

"It's a very forgotten segment the acculturated, assimilated Hispanic," said Anita Santiago, head of Santa Monica-based Anita Santiago Advertising. "They might understand (commercials broadcast in English), but that doesn't mean they feel included."

Hence the effort by Chevron to target them with a Spanish commercial on English TV. The commercial in question was one in Chevron's series of claymation spots, in which an animated car aspires to sing like its owners members of a mariachi band and scares an iguana off a fence with its terrible voice.

Other advertisers have also tried the experiment. L'Oreal recently ran a commercial in Spanish featuring actress Jennifer Lopez during the Fox network's "Melrose Place." Miller beer, Nike Inc. and Ford Motor Co. also have dabbled in the format.

Given the rocky response to the Chevron ad, some fear that other sponsors will be hesitant to try the approach cutting off a potential new source of business for Hispanic advertising agencies. "I definitely think it will make other marketers think twice if they hear there was a negative reaction with Chevron," Imada said.

Santiago maintains that showing Spanish-language commercials on English-language TV is a good strategy, but she was disheartened by the reaction to the spot. She believes that if Chevron does decide to kill the commercial because of the unfavorable reaction, it will be catering to hate.

"I just have to applaud people who (run Spanish commercials on English TV), because it's a brave way of taking a stance against all this silliness," she said.

But others wonder why Chevron tried it in the first place.

Ray Durazo, president of Durazo Communications Inc., said the strategy involves a certain degree of risk because some segments of the population feel threatened by the increasing use of Spanish in Los Angeles and California as a whole.

"If you're going to do it, you better have some well-thought-out reasons for doing it," Durazo said. "I think doing it on a random basis, as Chevron found out, can be very dangerous."

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