A recent shift has occurred in the American psyche and in large part seems both untraceable and undetectable. It is often hard for minority groups and immigrants to shed stereotypes and images, but in the past year, there has a been a marked difference in the way Asian-Americans are portrayed in American commercialism. They have gone from being the service providers, to the ones being provided for – from advertisers, to the target audience.
Previously Asians in commercials were generally portrayed as those in the service industry – the guy fixing your computer, or the salesman that was so speedy and efficient you just had to go to their store. This played on the positive (at least sometimes) stereotype of the Asian genius: quick, reliable, but ultimately a service to be exploited.
However, in recent commercials, you can see an elementary school age boy eating Frosted Mini Wheats, or men pounding fists — all with normal American friends, all shown in a way that no longer feels like they’re there just for correctness. One of the most telling examples is a Chinese couple buying a Honda; discussing in Chinese so the salesman cannot understand their shock at how great the car is. Instead, surprisingly, the salesman tells them he’ll fill out the paperwork – speaking in Chinese. This sends a blatant message of more openness and a value of the Asian customer.
A good question at this point is why has this occurred? Asian-Americans only represent 5% of the total population, far less than other major minority groups. The answer of course, as with any corporate decision, is money.
Though a small percentage of the population, over 60% of new arrivals to America from Asia have at least a Bachelor’s Degree. Higher education means higher paychecks. In fact, Asian-Americans make about one-third more per household on average than other minority groups and have an estimated half-a-trillion dollar combined spending power.
However, the Asian-American population is not easy to attract. The six largest ethnicities: Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese, each have a distinct culture, language and often do not get along with each other, preferring the hyphenated Chinese-American or Korean-American to being labeled Asian. This causes advertising to be fragmented, creating a plethora of commercials in multiple languages, each aimed at a different group. State Farm has commercials in Mandarin aimed at Chinese-Americans and commercials in English aimed only at Indian-Americans, each following the same formula as their classic commercials, only now the upgraded boyfriend is a cricket player.
Despite this difficulty, there is still a huge market. In Atlanta there is a significant Korean-American population, giving rise to Korea Town in Duluth and the international shopping area around Doraville. Even more revealing is the recent inclusion of Korean language channels on basic cable, showing news, dramas and advertisements all aimed directly at Koreans.
While it is a definite positive change to be sold to, being targeted and hunted comes at a price. Some commercials miss the mark and hail back to the racist days of Keno and the Geek Squad. Others charmingly combine the two, one show a pair of women in an intricate fight scene replete with flying and kung fu shouts only to have them really be racing each other for the last outlet in a coffee shop.
A better question at this point is what will Asian-Americans do with this new found spending power? There are pitifully few prominent Asians in politics, the media or major corporations, the average American being hard pressed to find a single famous Asian they can name who is not a dictator or someone infamous.
I think it is time for Asian-Americans to stop pushing for high paying jobs like doctors and lawyers and instead prove their bank-ability to the public not just with the money they wield, but also their power over the culture they fuel. As a half-Japanese it is maybe nice to know that at least pumping through half of my veins is something being sought after and waiting to be drained.
I am not satisfied with just being a target and am not happy saying its good enough at least advertisers aren’t as racist as they were before. This is a time to stand up, not as Asian-Americans, or Americans, but as a people whose value is not determined by their race or culture, but what they can bring to the table.