Originally created 11/29/97

Telemarketers struggle to keep their ethnic groups straight

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Richard Mei could be considered a typical Italian-American. He speaks a little Italian, cooks a little Italian and celebrates holidays with a lot of Italians.

Yet half way across the country, in some database in some telemarketer's office, Mr. Mei is listed not as Italian, but as Chinese.

So while his neighbors in Bloomfield, Conn., receive fliers and phone calls in English, Mr. Mei occasionally receives a phone call or pamphlet in Chinese.

He has a simple explanation for the confusion: "It's my last name," he said. "The great majority with the last name Mei are Chinese."

As companies become more aggressive in telemarketing to non-English speakers, people like Mr. Mei are experiencing marketing misfires. It's all because of the way companies figure out who belongs to what ethnic group.

Ethnicity is usually determined by looking at last names, said Ed Burnett of Database America, a Montvale, N.J.-based firm that provides lists of specific groups to companies.

But in a country where ethnic and racial groups intermarry, names are altered, and many descendants of immigrants speak only English, surnames are not an accurate measure of language skills.

Joyce Garcia is of Filipino descent but constantly receives calls from Spanish-speaking telemarketers because of her last name.

"I have gotten calls for Senorita Garcia," she said. "I would speak English or say, `No hablo,' or whatever. I'm usually too startled to say anything else."

And the calls continue to come each month to her Chicago home.

"I think they could do themselves a favor by not making a knee-jerk assumption ... that everyone with a Spanish last name is a Spanish speaker," she said.

Some telemarketers are honing their databases to avoid the mistakes.

"We used to really depend on the surname and kind of figured out their nationality," said Suzanne Park, a spokeswoman for AT&T. "But we've gotten away from that with more sophisticated methods -- demographics, zip codes, what countries you call."

Other telemarketers and list providers will look at whether someone subscribes to a Spanish magazine or has made a donation to a Korean church.

But with so much money at stake, telemarketers are not about to pull back because of some misdirected calls: Telemarketing is expected to generate $424.5 billion in U.S. sales this year, and grow 9.4 percent annually over the next five years, according to the Direct Marketing Association, a trade group based in New York.

And with the minority population projected to grow by leaps and bounds, companies said they expect bilingual telemarketing to grow even faster.

But Catherine Lee, a medical student at New York University who is Korean, said she does not need to get solicitations in any language but English.

"I just tell them, you have the wrong number, you called the wrong Lee," she said.


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