By Luis A. Garcia

Read a few days’ worth of articles about Latino health issues and you’ll end up depressed:  “Latinos are more likely to start HIV care later in the course of illness than blacks or whites.” “One-third of Hispanic women are obese.” “Diabetes seems to be deadlier for Mexican-Americans than for Anglos.”

While individuals often don’t have much control over their health (genetics and socioeconomic, language and education factors all enter in), education initiatives can be effective at changing behaviors that hinder healthy lifestyles.

To reach Latinos with health-education messages, social marketers first must understand how culture shapes beliefs and behaviors. Culture is at the heart of successful Latino-targeted health-communications campaigns.

Here are five tips to communicating health messages to Latinos:

1.      Make culture – rather than language – the key. 

The Latino community is tremendously diverse, from country of origin, to level of acculturation, to language preference.  Don’t assume all Hispanics speak Spanish; at the same time, remember that English-preferred Latinos don’t necessarily behave just like the “total market.”

Still, cultural ties bind us.  Messages and material for Latinos should be culturally relevant first and then “in language,” depending on the target.

For example, the Latino community often sees obesity as an endearing characteristic, rather than a physical flaw, blogger Marisa Treviño remarks.  For many Latina moms, preparing dinner for their families equals love.   

2.      Involve the whole family — and the community around it.

Family is the cornerstone of Latino culture.  Hispanic health campaigns must involve the family and the community, and must surround the target with engaging messages where they live, study, work and play.

Research for the CDC’s VERB campaign to combat obesity indicated that Latinos did not connect being physically active with being healthy.  Instead, for Latina moms, “good” nutrition and lack of illness were the chief indicators of health.  And, their children were expected to spend more time at home.

So, the Ponte las Pilas (“get up and get moving”) campaign identified opportunities for kids to get out and play, at home and at school.  To get parental buy-in, the Niños Activos. Familias Sanas (Active Kids. Healthy Families) relied heavily on PR and experiential efforts to educate parents about the connection between physical activity and healthy children.

3.      Deliver the message where the target needs it most.

A manufacturer of OTC medications wanted to increase sales to Spanish-speaking Latina moms while addressing confusion about drug varieties and dosages.  Since Latina moms spend a lot of time in the supermarket, an easy-to-use Spanish-language “symptom wheel” helped moms identify the right medication their child needed based on symptoms – while she was actually standing in the store aisle.  Research showed that other moms were the most believable “spokespersons” for this target and message, so real-life Latina moms at in-store kiosks answered questions about the product.

4.      Provide easy-to-follow actionable messages. 

Latino parents care about their children’s health, just as non-Latino parents do.  But, language barriers, immigration status or educational attainment may prevent them from having all the information they need to keep their children healthy.  In fact, sometimes the kids are put in the position of translating doctor’s and pharmacist’s instructions for their non-English-speaking parents.

Create easy-to-follow actionable messages that help break through the clutter and provide solutions – testimonials from trusted sources, “promotoras,” media interviews with Spanish-speaking health experts, activity charts, parents’ and teachers’ guides, etc.

5.      Latinos stay connected across communications platforms.

Latinos are the ultimate “social networkers” (think “comadres” and compadres”). They stay connected on a personal level through family, friends and church, and with the greater world through traditional media, the Internet and social media.

In fact, more Latinos get health information from the media – mostly television – than from their doctors (83% vs. 71%), the Pew Hispanic Center says. But, family, friends, church and community groups are as vital as doctors in the Latino health-information chain.

One-third of all Latinos, regardless of acculturation and life stage, view the Internet as a “key component in building a better life”[1].  Yet, while “Hispanics tend to agree that the Internet is a helpful resource for health information,”[2] they use it less to seek health information.  Why? The health information Spanish-speaking Hispanics find on the Internet is less accurate or complete than what their English-speaking counterparts encounter. [3]

Spanish-language health information on the Internet must be correct, clear and complete.  The “look and feel” should be culturally appropriate.  Strengthen content, update it regularly, and make sure the Spanish is 100% correct.

So, any media plan you design for Latino-targeted health communications should be multiplatform and should take into account how Latinos interact with media and with their social networks, including social media.

Follow these simple guidelines to successfully engage Latinos with health information and you could help change tomorrow’s health headlines.

Luis A. Garcia is president of MarketVision, a culture-inspired marketing firm based in San Antonio, Texas.

  • [1] AOL Hispanic Cyberstudy/Cheskin 2010
  • [2] “Hispanics’ use of Internet health information: an exploratory study,” Ninfa Peña-Purcell, PhD, Journal of the Medical Library Association, April 2008
  • [3] “Proceed with Caution: A Report on the Quality of Health Information on the Internet (Complete Study),” Gretchen Bertrand, et al., RAND Health prepared for the California HealthCare Foundation, May 2001.
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