Asian-Americans Decry Stereotypes in TV Ads

Judging from most television commercials, Asians and Asian-Americans are either mincing stewardesses, sage mandarins, belligerent sumo wrestlers or rapacious Japanese businessmen--or they don’t exist at all.

That, at least, is how some Asian-American civil rights and community groups perceive most television commercials.

Ads are offensive if they contain stereotypical images--"anything that makes Asians look like either the model minority, the ‘capitalistic Asian businessmen’ or the servile image that you’ve seen for the last 50 years,” said Beulah Ku, executive director of the Assn. of Asian Pacific American Artists, a community group that monitors images of Asians in the mass media.

Some ads that have drawn complaints:


* Singapore Airlines commercials feature soft-focus images of demure flight attendants and the theme, “You’re a Great Way to Fly.” They are criticized as sexist and stereotyped by both the National Organization for Women and the Asian/Pacific Women’s Network in Los Angeles, which object to the ads’ subservient depiction of women.

Bob Candiotti, an airline spokesman, denied that the ads are sexist or racist and said they are meant to convey a high level of service.

* A recent Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial showed an old Asian man instructing children in the use of the abacus. The ad was viewed as stereotyped and offensive by some Asian community leaders and ad executives. KFC spokesman Gregg Reynolds said no offense was meant and that the company received no complaints.

* A Timex watch commercial, viewed nationally in 1989 and in isolated spot markets in 1990, used white men to portray Japanese sumo wrestlers. The Assn. of Asian Pacific American Artists decried what they called the tasteless use of actors in “yellow face.”


No offense was intended, and every effort was made to find Asian actors but to no avail, said Mary N. Weber, an executive in Timex’s account with the ad agency Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis. Asked if the agency would use a white actor in blackface, she added: “I wouldn’t expect so, but I’d have to see the concept.”

* Japan-bashing Pontiac car ads, which were aired in the New York area in 1990 by a Northeast dealers group, warned of a future Christmas at “Hirohito Center” in New York if American consumers continued buying Japanese cars. Those ads, with the tag line “Enough Already,” were seen as racist and designed to provoke the kind of anti-Japan sentiments that were prevalent during World War II.

Donny Deutsch, creative director for ad agency Deutsch Inc. in New York, denied any such intent and said the ads were received positively by viewers.

At best, inaccurate or insensitive advertisements can be offensive or insulting, Asian groups said. At worst, such ads may contribute to misunderstandings or economic resentment that can erupt into hate-motivated violence, they added.

Community groups point to the case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American beaten to death in 1982 by a former auto worker who mistook him as Japanese and blamed him for the recession in the U.S. auto industry.

“There’s a lot of confusion and general stereotyping of all Asians, which makes every Asian group susceptible to violence, regardless of which particular group the stereotypes are directed at,” said Michael J. Balaoing, a field representative for state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles). Balaoing has taken a leave of absence from his job to compile a 10-year national study of hate crimes against Asian-Americans. He feels such crimes are on the rise.

Aside from anti-Japan ads, the biggest complaint is that Asians appear in far too few mainstream advertisements--much less than blacks or Latinos and well below their representation in the general population. “In itself, the (Kentucky Fried Chicken) ad is probably not demeaning, but given the lack of balance and the lack of real-life depictions of Asians, it becomes insulting,” said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, a civil rights group.

One of the few measures of ethnic representation in television commercials, by the Screen Actors Guild, is a breakdown of female roles in 1989. It showed that Asians had only 1.4% of the total female roles in commercials that year, compared to 85.3% white, 7.9% black and 5.3% Latino.


By comparison, Asians and Pacific Islanders made up about 2.8% of the national population in 1989, according to estimates by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. In California, Asian-Pacifics made up 5.3% of the population in 1980, the latest number available from the census.

Things are not all bad for Asians in advertising. Asian groups applaud ads by such companies as Pacific Bell, Cathay Pacific Airways, Citibank and others that have made efforts to depict Asians accurately and sensitively in commercials aimed at a general audience. Pacific Bell even has a written policy that it will reflect the cultural diversity of its customers and communities.

In one recent Pacific Bell ad for business telephone systems intended for a mainstream audience, an Asian actor has the lead role as an American businessman in an everyday setting.

There is one other reason that advertisers might want to consider more sensitive portrayals of Asians and Asian-Americans in their ads: As one of the nation’s fastest-growing and more affluent ethnic groups, they are an attractive target for advertisers.

“If you want to poke fun or make fun of somebody, probably Asians are an easier target” than other ethnic groups, said David Chen, executive vice president for Asian marketing at the ad agency Muse Cordero Chen Inc. in Los Angeles.

“But that’s an insensitive way to do an ad,” he said. “The purpose is to sell the client’s services or products . . . and you don’t want to alienate a section of the consumer market.”

Movie and Commercial Director at Same Time

Try to follow this.


First it was commercial directors, such as Ridley Scott, turning into movie directors. Then it was movie directors, such as David Lynch, turning into commercial directors.

Now it’s movie directors recreating scenes from their movies to be used as commercials.


Haskell Wexler, a director who also won Academy Awards as a cinematographer on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory,” has turned his lenses to commercial use by directing a spot for Gucci Timepieces that recreates a scene from one of his movies.

The spot, to break this month on national television, recreates the chess scene from the 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway steamer, “The Thomas Crown Affair,” on which Wexler worked as director of photography.

The commercial will have new music and new actors in the roles. McQueen died in 1980.

A Downbeat Forecast for the Media in 1991

The number of women’s magazines will shrink, newspapers will cost $1 and reporters who covered the boom of the 1980s will be getting pink slips in the 1990s.

Those are some of the media predictions for 1991 made by Ketchum Public Relations in the annual outlook edition of its Ketchum Contact newsletter.

The predictions “are based on the idea that the greatest influence for 1991 is going to be the dollar--shrinking ad dollars,” said Jonathan Schenker, vice president of media services at Ketchum.

Among the predictions:

* High-profile magazines that rely on upscale readerships will fold, including Egg, Smart and Mother Earth News.

* More television programs will ape the success of Jane Pauley’s and Connie Chung’s shows, centering less on topics and more on personalities.

* Sports radio will boom, following the success of WFAN in New York.

* Magazines will turn overseas to tap new advertising markets. Esquire and Vanity Fair already plan British editions, and Fortune is aiming at France.

* Editorial staffs will be slashed to cut costs, and publications will make more use of syndicated stories outside of metropolitan areas.