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New Paper by ODU Researchers Suggests Bilingual Marketing May Be a Mistake

Old Dominion University Strome College of Business

A groundbreaking new journal article co-authored by two Old Dominion University business professors suggests that putting Spanish on product packaging may be a mistake because of the way those products are perceived compared to products with an English-only label.

In the piece "How Culture of Targeting Impacts the Evaluation of Products with Multilingual Packaging," published in the journal Psychology & Marketing, Mahesh Gopinath, associate professor of marketing, and Myron Glassman, professor of marketing in ODU's College of Business and Public Administration (CBPA) explore the effect of multilingual packaging on product evaluation. Prasahanth Nyer of Chapman University co-authored the paper.

With the increasing growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, marketers are pursuing their business. To do this, marketers believe they have to use bilingual marketing communications, the researchers say. Yet, based on their findings, the researchers believe this strategy is a mistake.

"There are two assumptions marketers make when using this bilingual marketing strategy," the authors write. "The first is that the U.S. Hispanic market is relatively homogeneous," consisting of people who don't speak English. The authors note that this is a flawed strategy, because while some recent immigrants may feel a strong attachment to their country of origin, almost 90 percent of second generation Hispanic youths describe themselves as "American" and nearly all Hispanic adults born in the U.S. of immigrant parents say they are fluent in English.

The authors suggest that not only is there little need for bilingual packaging, but that many Americanized Hispanics may resent bilingual marketing because almost all Hispanics understand they have to learn English. Some may feel that bilingual marketing makes it too easy to not learn English.

The other assumption marketers make is that bilingual marketing will have no negative effect on the country's non-Hispanic population. However, their studies show that this is not true. They explain their findings by saying that some non-Hispanics may see bilingual marketing as targeting illegal immigrants, the Hispanic group least likely to speak English. Another reason they give is that some non-Hispanic consumers may believe that bilingual packaging makes it less likely that Hispanics will learn English and assimilate. Finally, non-Hispanics may believe that U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin should view English as their "own language."

The Psychology and Marketing article references two studies done by the researchers. For both studies, the stimulus was a photograph of a boxed microwave oven sold at Wal-Mart. Using Photoshop, the photo was manipulated to either add or remove Spanish labeling on the package. Participants in the study were college students attending either an East Coast or West Coast University.

"In retrospect, the findings should not be surprising. Historically, America was viewed as a melting pot. More recently, many view it as a "salad" where immigrants maintain their original national identity," the authors wrote.

"Yet, for many living in the United States who consider themselves Americans, the concept of a "salad" goes against their national pride."

Glassman feels that markets could woo Hispanics by helping them learn English so that they can assimilate. Companies such as Home Depot and Lowe's would do well to sponsor English classes for their Hispanic customers, he said.

Glassman notes that most marketers don't realize that their bilingual efforts may be harming Hispanics by keeping them from fully participating in American society, causing them to become second-class citizens. This research tells marketers how their well-meaning efforts to target Hispanics are actually harming them. The authors caution marketers that the socially responsible thing may actually be to stop using bilingual marketing communications.