Even into the 1990s, marketers still depicted Asians as either martial arts experts or nerdy submissive types too shy to speak in public, Yang says.
There are still plenty of roles Asian Americans are seldom cast to play, Yang says. There’s no Asian American equivalent of the Old Spice guy, the hunky leading-man type played by an African American actor, Isaiah Mustafa. In fact, Asian American men rarely play romantic roles on TV or in American-made movies.
Verizon Wireless also says it’s a mistake to read any larger meaning into its TV spots featuring Asian American actors. The company cast actors of Asian descent because the commercials were originally intended to run on Korean- and Chinese-language TV programs and not because it was trying to suggest that Asian Americans have superior technical knowledge or talent, said spokeswoman Brenda Raney.
The casting, she said, was simply part of Verizon’s efforts to portray diversity: “We work very hard to make sure our general-market advertising is reflective of society as a whole.” Verizon subsequently decided to run the ads on English-language programs, too, Raney said.
Scholarly research shows that Asian American consumers accept the “model minority” advertising stereotype about themselves. In a study conducted last year, Yoo, the University of Texas researcher, showed panels of Asian Americans two sets of mock ads for mobile phones, the first featuring Caucasian models and the second with Asian models. Then, she repeated the experiment with ads for a “non-tech” product, cologne, alternating ads with Caucasian and Asian models.
Result: Asian American consumers were more favorably disposed toward the tech products when they were endorsed by the Asian models. They also liked the non-tech products more when they were endorsed by Caucasian models.
Yoo theorizes that this is a reflection of the “match up” theory: Asian American panelists have bought into the same cues and stereotypes as other Americans thanks to years of cultural exposure.
That might suggest that marketers will forever consign Asian Americans to wearing lab coats and playing techies. But Jeff Yang is more hopeful. Gradually, he says, Asian Americans are appearing in settings where their ethnicity or racial identity is immaterial.
“Over time, we’re starting to see a drifting away of these hard-core exclusive representations and stereotypical formats,” he says. “I think, in general, the arc of marketing is long, but it bends toward sensitivity.”