A recent Washington Post article on Asian American stereotypes in ads highlights a pattern in commercials for companies like Verizon, Staples, Best Buy, IBM, etc.
When Asian Americans appear in advertising, they typically are presented as the technological experts — knowledgeable, savvy, perhaps mathematically adept or intellectually gifted. They’re most often shown in ads for business-oriented or technical products — smartphones, computers, pharmaceuticals, electronic gear of all kinds.
The stereotypical portrayal reinforces a marketing concept known as the “match up” theory, which states that consumers respond more favorably to products advertised by an actor or spokesperson who “fits” the product. Just as consumers expect cosmetics to be sold by a supermodel or athletic equipment by a professional athlete, in the minds of the U.S. public, Asian Americans are strongly associated with technical know-how, says researcher Jinnie Jinyoung Yoo of the University of Texas.
These sorts of roles haven’t escaped the notice of some Asian Americans, who are of mixed minds about it. On the one hand, it’s hard to object to being associated with positive traits — intellectual, well-educated, knowledgeable, etc. On the other, they say, it’s a limited and singular cliche for a highly diverse group that comprises nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population and is made up of people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Indian and South Asian descent as well as other backgrounds.
“I’m just happy to see [Asian Americans] at all,” says Bill Imada, the chief executive of IW Group, a Los Angeles-based ad agency that specializes in marketing to Asian American consumers. “Does [the tech role] perpetuate a stereotype? Yes. But at least it doesn’t perpetuate the stereotypes we once saw.”
Is it really progress to replace old stereotypes with new ones, however “positive” and innocuous these images appear? Is more representation necessarily better representation? (Case in point: remember the backlash last month to DirecTV’s “The Whale” featuring Dat Phan as a Mr. Chow knock-off?)
The article also cites research that shows Asian American consumers are just as susceptible to these stereotypes in advertising. It’s high time for both advertisers AND consumers, regardless of race, to buy into more diverse, creative, and interesting images.