Thursday, April 01, 2010

No Habla Español

There is a mini-brouhaha raging because of a slogan used by a Pepsi campaign for the Hispanic market that a lot of people, including me, feel uses incorrect Spanish. You can read about it here.
This incident allows me to vent about a routine problem in Hispanic advertising, which is that the Spanish that is sometimes used runs the gamut from the pathetic to the blatantly incorrect. This is my theory of why this happens:
This is not a Spanish speaking country (yet). The Spanish spoken in the US is an impoverished version of what is spoken in any other Spanish speaking country,  basically because Spanish is not the main language. It lacks a local literature, and it lacks outlets. We don't really have serious newspapers or magazines. People don't read in Spanish. We are not surrounded by the language. This makes our language poor. Add to this that we have different national groups with different accents and expressions unevenly scattered across the country, and we have a bit of a mess.
I have nothing against Spanglish, but nobody can tell me that Spanish in the US is a beautiful living organism. It's not.
Because of this unique circumstance, those of us who make a living communicating in Spanish need to be particularly meticulous with our language. This doesn't mean that we all have to sound like Cervantes, or that our Spanish should be stiff and archaic, but we need to know it and use it well. We are its custodians.
In the case of advertising, the problem gets compounded because people forget that Spanish and English have different grammatical structures. The products we shill have been dreamed up in English. The marketing lingo used to describe them barely resembles English to begin with, but clients and their legal departments expect the Spanish versions to be as close to the English as possible. This is why many agency creatives and executives pretend that Spanish should behave like English. For the most part, it doesn't. A classic example is that necessary articles (el, la, los, las) disappear from our sentences. English can do this, but Spanish needs articles. Stuff like this and worse happens all the time. It sounds dreadful.
The other problem, and this has happened to me countless times, is that clients trust some half illiterate Hispanic consumer more than they trust a professional copywriter or their agency. This is because of their reliance on research and focus groups. I will give you an example. We mentioned the word "college" in an ad. In Spanish it translates as universidad (university). However, in a focus group, some moron with a limited command of Spanish, whose only credentials were that he was a potential consumer, insisted that the word in Spanish for college was colegio. However, colegio in Spanish means grade school, and I can assure you we did not intend to recruit 7 year olds to the Army. It took way longer than should have been necessary to persuade our clients that the guy was talking out of his ass.
The standards of our industry are very low. When I moved here in 1992, pretty much anybody with a Hispanic sounding last name was considered the ultimate expert in the Hispanic market. You had people leading creative departments that were incapable of writing a sentence in Spanish. But nobody thought that the fact that they spoke three words of Spanish with their abuela on Sundays meant they could not write in Spanish or give grammatical opinions. Today, things have changed and most serious Hispanic agencies have very qualified people, most of whom are native speakers of Spanish, and actual writers who can write in Spanish. But bad habits and uncomprehending clients still wreak havoc.

People who defend the Pepsi phrase use the excuse that language is flexible. What are they, Noam Chomsky? I think the unspoken rule is that language is only flexible when it works; that is, when most people understand the meaning intended by an unusual turn of phrase. If most people are flummoxed and annoyed, and uncomprehending of a turn of phrase that seems unidiomatic, incorrect and weird, then language is not flexible. Also, language may be pliable, but we don't go around inventing meanings for words at our convenience, to please a marketing client. We don't say that now the word "tree" really means "cloud". Language seems to work as an unspoken collective contract in which we all agree with certain pre-assigned meanings. When new expressions are born, we all collectively, instinctively agree to accept them or not, use them or not, according to how much they resonate, and make sense to us. So don't tell me that in the Pepsi case they were being flexible with the language. They were sloppy, which is another story.
I'm fascinated with this case because it seems like an instance of groupthink, surprisingly coming from a good, reliable agency, which has consistently done dignified work. However, in advertising, and particularly in marketing, it is not unusual for common sense to leave the building. I can almost bet that they were trying to find a more original way of saying "I count" because that verb has been used copiously and frequently in connection to the Census, which is related to the campaign. What is a mystery is if anybody cautioned there was something wrong with the phrase or what processes of massive self-convincing took place in order for this to happen.


  1. I was always wondering about the bad Spanish in street advertisement, until I found out what you are talking about. Even if a company hires a Spanish-speaker to do a translation, they would always trust more the half-assed translation done by some senior staffer from that said company that took two semesters of Spanish while in college.

  2. Conchita12:43 PM

    I wonder what Aldo thinks of all this.

  3. Ay, if only PepsiCo had correctly and aptly used "Yo cuento" as their slogan, they could have played on the Spanish double meaning of a person counting (in the census) and a person telling their story (on the website and in ELP's (la futura licenciada en Chicano Studies) documentary. And, they could have retained the Pepsi ball logo in the o's of yo and cuento, which I'm sure was a huge deal to the powers that be (double brand exposure).

    Anyhoo, enhorabuena, Enchi, for another marvelous nail-on-the-head post.


  4. Sometimes I toy with the idea of being a creative myself. I would have advised Pepsi to use a can of, well, Pepsi, and play "bote pateado"...

    a Pepsi can is being kicked around while everybody hides and someone, leaning on a tree, starts to "count" a "contar"

    Get it?

    Ha, in my wildest dreams...!

    Good posting, Judy.

  5. Anonymous2:13 PM

    Yo Sumo = I sum! That is hilarious.