Companies will often get called out if they use racist images in their ads, like the recent Nivea ad that said Afros are uncivilized. However, one prevalent racial stereotype usually gets a pass in advertising: Asians as technology experts. The image is generally positive, but it still limits the way Asian Americans are portrayed.
As the Washington Post points out, being cast as characters who are intelligent and tech savvy is a vast improvement over the way Asian American actors were portrayed in commercials in the past. The racist '50s Jell-O ad featuring a Chinese baby has been gawked at by millions of people on YouTube, and in the '90s many commercials still only showed Asians as martial arts experts or shy nerdy types. Now Asian actors are more likely to appear in commercials as the friendly tech guy who swoops in to save a clueless white character. The Post has a rundown of some recent examples:
●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."
While the stereotype undoubtedly exists, there's some trouble with these examples. In the last two ads listed, Asian Americans are just one of a group of tech experts. There's nothing wrong with reflecting the fact that Asians, as well as people of other ethnicities, work in business and science fields. The issue is that Asians make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, but they're still disproportionately cast as the guy who can fix your computer, and are less likely to appear as a character who's not into science. The most glaring example is the lack of romantic roles for Asians in mainstream American TV shows and movies.
Scientists say something called the "match up" theory explains why advertisers tend to keep things stereotypical, even if they claim they're all about diversity. Research shows that people have a more favorable response to ads when they feature someone who "fits" the product. A study conducted at the Unversity of Texas last year showed that even Asian American consumers tended to like products better if the actors fit into expected roles, with Asian models advertising tech products and white models shown with non-tech products.
The researchers say this is probably caused by Asian Americans absorbing the same biases as everyone else in the country, but that doesn't mean advertisers should keep feeding into the stereotype. Experts say they believe that gradually, Asian actors will start appearing on our TV screens in a wider variety of roles. However, it seems we're ready for an Asian American Old Spice guy to come along and give other advertisers a push in the right direction. If he has to be wearing a towel and looking sexy on a horse, so be it.
Asian Americans Face New Stereotype In Ads [Washington Post]
Earlier: Nivea Says Afros Are Uncivilized