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Media and marketers discover Hispanic boom. Mickey Mouse and Avon lady become bilingual

Sensing sombrero-size profits, corporate America is increasingly pitching products directly to Hispanics. While a few companies have long tried to woo Hispanic consumers, a growing number of mainstream companies are expanding their appeals or jumping into the market for the first time:

Campbell Soup Company is pushing a line of more than 50 food products in New York and Miami under the Casera label. The products are aimed at those of Caribbean origin.

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In Los Angeles, Avon is as likely to be calling in Spanish as in English. Seventy percent of the cosmetics company's 6,200 sales representatives in the area are of Latin background, most of whom are bilingual and most of whom are pitching blush and lip gloss to fellow Latinos.

Disneyland has been stepping up its pitches to Hispanics, which include television ads showing Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the rest of the Magic Kingdom crew merrily welcoming a Hispanic family to the park.

``Every day new companies are entering the market with Spanish-language efforts,'' says Gary Berman, vice-president of Strategy Research Corporation, a Miami-based research firm specializing in the Hispanic market.

There's plenty of reason for the interest. The Hispanic population in the United States is increasing at a rate five times as fast as than the general population. It is expected to account for 54 percent of the country's population growth over the next 25 years.

The nation's 19 million Hispanics have a total annual income of more than $125 billion. And many of them develop strong loyalty to brands they believe in.

``It is a good, fairly affluent market,'' says David Hackney of the New Jersey-based Campbell Soup. ``It is one you can't ignore.''

Fewer companies are ignoring the Hispanic market. When Richard Dillon first began knocking on corporate doors 12 years ago, he found little interest in that market - only ``nickel-and-dime'' investments.

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Today Mr. Dillon, who is chairman of Mendoza, Dillon & Asociados Inc., the biggest Hispanic advertising agency in the nation, with billings of about $38 million, finds far more receptivity - though he says there is ``still a long way to go.''

Although general advertising expenditures in the US grew modestly last year, the amount spent on Latino advertising jumped 23 percent, to $490 million, according to the publication Hispanic Business.

At least 40 US corporations spend $1 million or more each year wooing Hispanics. Some of them - including McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, General Foods - have been in the market for a number of years.

Other companies - among them Toyota, Levi Strauss & Co., Dow Chemical - are newer entrants.

While the demographics are enticing, there are other reasons companies decide to target Hispanics. Research has shown that they use certain cosmetics, such as lipstick, more than non-Hispanics - a fact that hasn't been lost on Avon and some of its competitors in the industry.

In deciding to push the Casera line of foods, Campbell was well aware that Hispanics tend to eat more at home than Anglos do. Studies also show they spend a disproportionate amount on certain food and grocery products.

``We think there is an opportunity for brand loyalty there,'' says Mr. Hackney of Campbell.

Early on, some companies tried to appeal to Hispanics by translating their general commercials into Spanish. But often these had little effect, or produced confusion in translation, so most advertisers tailor their themes to the audience (though companies also make pitches to Hispanics in English).

Hispanics tend to wear jeans more for work than Anglos, but less for fashion. Thus, Levi Strauss's ads stress people on the job in denims. ``The target audience wants to be treated individually,'' says Dean Christon, a product specialist with the San Francisco-based company.

Still, not everyone is rushing to hard-sell Hispanics. Few financial services and airline companies are wooing them.

And some companies are leery about going after Hispanic customers because they don't understand the market or lack information on product usage by this group.

Some national advertisers hesitate because there is a limited number of national ethnic media outlets available to run ads. In other instances, there may not be any reason to target the market.

Many toy manufacturers, who aim almost all of their advertising at children, contend that most Hispanic kids know English and watch the same TV programs stations as Anglo youngsters. So why specialize?

``The market is still very new,'' sums up researcher Gary Berman.

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