When California required a plan to recycle unused paint, industry non-profit PaintCare was tasked with the job. The goal was to get the word out that pouring leftover paint in the backyard hurts the environment.
"And putting (paint) in the drain," added Paul Fresina, PaintCare's state program director, "is not good for the water treatment plants. In some cases, it could go into the river or stream or the ocean."
Nearly two years after it started in California, PaintCare has a list of over 500 hardware stores that have volunteered to be take-back centers. But not everyone’s hearing about this. A PaintCare survey of about 70 Chinese speakers, conducted this spring, for example, found that most didn’t know paint was recyclable.
Public awareness campaigns usually come in two versions: English and Spanish. But in a state like California, getting the word out means thinking in multiple tongues.
Once Chinese speakers heard that recycling paint — yóuqī huíshōu in Mandarin — was a possibility, and a convenient one, they said they wanted to give it a try, said Namju Cho of S. Groner Associates, the marketing firm hired by PaintCare.
"It was interesting because I think the stereotype is that a lot of small ethnic communities, especially the east Asian communities, they don’t care about the environment, they’re not the most environmental," Cho said.
Last year, Cho worked on marketing paint recycling to Korean-speaking contractors, a group active in commercial painting. And now, she’s helping PaintCare market in Chinese, the third-most spoken language in California.
PaintCare bypassed mainstream news outlets for ethnic media. A Chinese-language radio ad has already started to air in the Bay area, and will hit the airwaves in the LA area this fall.
Because paint recycling is seen as a less common practice for its audience, Cho said the message of the ads are slightly different from the English ones, which simply promote the fact that there are recycling sites, discoverable online.
"We tried to do a lot of the messaging around paint recycling being the norm, being the right thing to do," Cho said.
Corporations, of course, try to broaden market share by advertising in multiple languages. But Cho said there weren't many multilingual public awareness campaigns aimed at changing behavior to model the PaintCare effort on.
Most recently, the Obama administration tried to encourage enrollment by Asian-Americans in health plans created by the Affordable Care Act, but ran into challenges trying to meet the needs of a population with diverse linguistic needs.
For now, at least, PaintCare is not expanding beyond its Chinese and Korean-language marketing strategies. Outreach to its next target group in California — real estate agents — will be done primarily in English.