Advertising to Asian-Americans

Last week we discussed a very interesting topic about advertising to the three major ethnic subcultures in the US.   I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that this part was rushed and there wasn’t a lot of time spent on any of the three groups.  I realize that there is a lot of material to cover in our course, and that we unfortunately are limited to tight time constraints.  That being said, I want to expand on one particular group, that being Asian-Americans.  As stated in class, the Asian-American umbrella covers a broad array of distinct cultural groups, and it is very difficult to paint this group with a broad brush.  Thus, I can see that it can be a challenge marketing to Asian-Americans.  It is so broad, that I can’t even write a blog about advertising to Asian-Americans because there are a lot of differences within our group.  And it’s not just our country of ancestry that differentiates us, but also whether we were born in the U.S. and where we grew up.  Again, I can only speak for a certain segment of Asian-Americans, if even that.  But as an Asian-American consumer, I don’t feel like I was very accurately described when we went over Asian-American consumers in class.

First of all, I was born and raised in the United States, and hate it when people assume otherwise.  It is true though, I speak my native language at home: English.  I don’t speak Chinese at home to my parents or my siblings, and my Chinese is conversational at best.  For people like me, we identify more with American culture then any culture from Asia.  Being a minority makes me feel like a misfit in the States sometimes, but at the same time I felt like more of a misfit when I visited China.  In fact, my visit there was actually the first time in my life that I wish I knew how to speak more Chinese, especially Mandarin.  When I see chopsticks stuck in a bowl of rice, I don’t get offended because I don’t know what that means (well at least I didn’t before this course).  But if I see an ad that plays to Asian stereotypes, then I will absolutely be offended and sometimes boycott the product in the advertisement.

The point is that as Asians will become more Americanized as a group in the future, with each generation adapting more to U.S. culture than the one before.  Right now, there are a lot of Asians who are fourth, fifth, sixth-generation Asian-Americans.  But the majority of Asian-Americans today are immigrants or first generation.  As you move down generations, less of the Asian culture will be retained, less “native” language will be spoken at home, and self-identification will become a blurry mess.  That is not to say that no culture will be retained, or that a fourth generation Asian-American won’t be able to speak their ancestor’s language.  But in the future, marketing will have to be tailored to these “Americanized” Asians, and the traditional (and to me stereotypical) perceptions of Asian-Americans will be outdated, which means that the way marketers currently advertise to Asian-Americans will become outdated as well.

For me personally, I believe media and advertisements should stray away from stereotypes.  That said, it is a lot easier to advertise to Americanized Asians, because it’s really not that different from advertising to Americans of other groups.  I don’t base my product choices based on anything that has to do with Asian culture.  Renovating the McDonald’s to be more “Feng Shui” doesn’t make me want to go there anymore or less.  That said, I am fully supportive of the restaurant innovation shown in class, because I know that it will appeal to some Asian-Americans, and McDonald’s is blending in Asian culture without being offensive.  That is the main thing that marketers have to be careful about with younger generations of Asian-Americans.  Asians from Asia don’t have the deep grasp of the concept of racism like Americans do.  From my experience, they don’t seem to be as offended at certain things as Asian-Americans.  It is understandable, being that most Asian countries are relatively homogeneous, and racism does not have the deep history it is in the United States.

What this all means is that marketing towards Asians is great, as long as it is tastefully done.  This can really help build trust, especially with new citizens (or immigrants) who still do not have many allegiances to American brands.  But for people like me, you don’t necessarily have to cater to my “Asian-ness”.  For me, you can’t win me over using sub-culture in branding, but you could easily lose me.  An example is the Sales Genie ad from the SuperBowl that garnered a lot of attention.  These played to the stereotypes using stereotypical names and accents.  I don’t want to put the ad on my blog, but you can read more about it here, here, here,or here.  The last link was an article with the headline “An Ad With Talking Pandas, Maybe, but Not With Chinese Accents”.  This kind of sums up what I saying.  I don’t know if this is true, but maybe having Pandas in a commercial will resonate with some Chinese people.  But to go overboard with all the stereotypes is too much.  Further, this ad was not meant to be a targeted specifically towards Asians. Interestingly enough, the ads were created by an Asian-American (or at least one that has been in this country for awhile).  Obviously I don’t think he meant to offend (especially his own culture with another controversial ad featuring an Indian male), but it shows that ignorance can come from anybody.  And it’s understandable, I myself have had my own brainfarts where I have said or done that could be offensive to Asians, although many times it is among friends.  Gupta has also said as much, stating “People have been making fun of my accent for years.  And I love it.”  But sometimes jokes among friends aren’t meant to be sent to a bigger audience, where you don’t know where they’re coming from and may not understand the potential irony in some jokes that play on stereotypes (not saying that this was the case here).

The point is that to avoid offensive marketing and branding, it is wise to have a diverse marketing team and to extensively use focus groups.  In addition, it is also important that staff members follow closely the mentality of different subcultures, and try to market from the perspectives of different cultures.  The Snapple ad that we saw in class, for example, was most likely not intended to offend.  And to prevent this, maybe a more diverse marketing team on the Snapple brand would have made a difference, or maybe if they paid closer attention to the issues African-Americans are sensitive towards.  Even if there was an African-American on the team that wasn’t offended, that shouldn’t give it an automatic green light.  No matter their ethnic origin, marketers can’t rely just on their own perspective or their interactions with close friends to know what issues affect entire communities and subcultures.  In terms of Asian-Americans, I recommend all marketers look at various blogs or activist groups on the Internet to see the issues prevalent to us.  Below is just a sample of websites that marketers can visit.




Jeff Yang

Center for Asian American Media

Asian American Justice Center

Media Action Network for Asian Americans


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