A kid walks into a Verizon phone store wearing a belt bristling with the latest tech gadgets.
“Sweet belt,” says a salesman.
The kid shows off his back-to-school hardware: “E-reader for textbooks . . . GPS . . . video camera for lectures . . . game pad.”
“Have you considered this?” responds the salesman, pulling out a smartphone. “It’s got all that and more than 200,000 apps.”
The kid’s smirk vanishes. He’s stunned into silence by the all-in-one convenience.
The most striking aspect of this new TV commercial may not be the product or the semi-humorous portrayal of gizmo love. It’s the casting. The kid is played by a young Caucasian actor; the salesman is Asian American.
The two roles fit a well-worn pattern, one noted by academic researchers for almost two decades. 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.
Variations on the theme have appeared in numerous TV commercials in recent months:
●Staples advertises its computer-repair service with images of laptops flying like gulls into one of its stores. When one of the laptops crash-lands, the fix-it technician who comes to its “rescue” is an Asian American.
●CVS’s TV ads feature a lab-coated pharmacist of Asian descent dispensing advice about medication to a baffled Caucasian lady.
●A mother and her teenage son shopping at Best Buy learn that the store offers “Geek Squad” techies, who are packaged and displayed like life-size action figures on the store’s shelves. One of the tech guys is an Asian American.
●IBM’s commercials feature brainy IT consultants, including a young Asian American woman who talks up the company’s efforts to create “a smarter planet.”
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.”
Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, Jeff Yang, a New York-area marketing consultant, used to engage in “Asian-spotting” while watching TV and movies or looking at advertising. “If you saw an Asian in any role, it was remarkable,” he says. “Even if it was trivial or offensive, you felt that it was somehow better than being invisible.”
The few depictions of the 1960s and ’70s trafficked in gross stereotypes. In a famous early 1970s commercial for Calgon water softener, a laundry proprietor named Mr. Lee confided an “ancient Chinese secret” for cleaning shirts to a Caucasian customer. In an animated spot from 1958, a narrator describes, in broken English, an “ancient Chinese pantomine” in which a Chinese mother “blings” her baby “slawberry” and “glape”-flavored Jell-O for dessert.
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.”