TJ, the first Filipino American Muppet on "Sesame Street," made his debut during AANHPI Heritage Month.
Ad Age is marking Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month 2023 with our Honoring Creative Excellence package. (Read the introduction here.)
AANHPI Heritage Month 2023 has seen a multitude of brands showing up to celebrate Asian cultures and communities.
“I believe the conversation has shifted from tackling anti-Asian hate to celebrating its culture and successes in 2023,” said Nami Soejima, senior VP of strategy at media agency UM Worldwide. “The best campaigns and communications are coming from smaller brands that are proudly speaking to their Asian heritage.”
Soejima pointed to Asian-inspired retailers such as Bad Binch TongTong; Love, Indus; and Sanzo, with multiplatform work that’s creative, authentic and “true to their brand heritage.”
On the other end of the spectrum, major brands have a responsibility (and an opportunity) to raise their voices for the AANHPI community. P&G rose to the occasion with “The Name” in 2022, which Soejima described as a campaign “worth highlighting for big brands doing it right.”
For this month’s Amp spotlight, we asked members of the Amp community to share their thoughts on the state of Asian representation in the ad world, and the campaigns and creatives that “did it right.”
The stories we tell
While there is ample work still to be done in dispelling stereotypes, increasing representation and inclusion and eradicating hate, much progress has been made, noted Wei Wong, executive producer at Wondersauce.
“It’s clear that we aren’t an afterthought anymore,” Wong said, sharing experiences of growing up in the U.S. “I’ve always found myself having to tread lightly around my day-to-day existence. Today, one can argue that younger members of our community have an objectively easier time being themselves without scrutiny, but there are still ways to go.”
Wong applauded recent campaigns from Google, Zoom and Old Spice in “driving their ads in ways that are nonstereotypical,” adding that the best remedy to anti-Asian hate is, “Normalizing what it practically means being AANHPI: showcasing our faces doing everyday things, engaging with products and services like anyone else would, or interacting with people as a member and not as an outsider.”
Yejoon Hwang, associate creative director at Motive, shared a similar perspective, raising the issue of tokenization and lack of widespread visibility.
“The goal is to get to the next step, going from inclusion to representation—stories that can only be told from the specificities of culture that a Korean American might bring, or a Filipino immigrant brings through the interaction with today’s society,” Hwang said. “Brands and agencies alike need to start thinking about telling stories that are not broad strokes of yellow monolithic universality. It is through specificity, details and real lived experiences that brands will really be able to connect to everyone.”
Jenn Ho, a fellow associate creative director at Motive, highlighted the equally pressing issue of inclusion in the industry, among those making decisions that impact what ends up on screens.
“The reason we're in the room has been validated again and again, but there's still a need to build context, a cultural bridge to authentic representation in the stories that get told,” Ho said. “The responsibility to challenge stereotypes and insidious misrepresentations of different Asian cultures remains. The next step involves giving genuine oversight and decision-making power to those who are represented on-screen.”
Ho noted, “Because I'm Korean and I know my culture, I will pick up on nuances and details of stories that others do not.”
Alex Nguyen, Wieden+Kennedy strategy director, drove home that same point, acknowledging that representation is at the core of audience experiences that truly resonate, and that it can’t happen without the critical voices sharing their perspectives behind the scenes.
“As crucial as it is to see ourselves on screen, it’s even more important to have us in the room, at the table, making the work. Every brief is an opportunity to do that,” Nguyen said.
For Kumi Croom, director of collaboration and equity at Duncan Channon, it’s about more depth of experience, varied perspectives and specific narratives around Asian American experiences.
“As an industry, we need to challenge ourselves to do more than drive visibility for Asian faces or ‘celebrate heritage,’” Croom said. “Telling a wider range of stories is important because it’s all too easy to treat the AANHPI population as a monolith, or simply focus on the largest groups. We need to normalize stories that illuminate the diversity of lived experiences, and truthfully consider the cultural nuances of each community.”
Croom said that when engaging and elevating Asian perspectives, directors and writers in advertising are a huge part of what’s needed. She referenced the work of Lee Sung Jin with the TV series “Beef,” celebrating the way it represented complex Korean characters in the mainstream in an unprecedented way.
To some, the change taking shape in the ad world is both real and heartening, showing true progress and a movement toward the end goals of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
“When I started my career in advertising, I was usually the only Asian in the room, and any Asians in the business primarily worked in other functions like finance and IT,” said Antoniette Wico, FCB’s executive VP and group managing director. “Now, I see more young Asian professionals, across the spectrum of departments, contributing their gifts and their perspectives to make the work more inclusive and resonant. We still have more work to do in bringing more Asians into the business, but I’m encouraged to see the progress we’ve made so far.”
The campaigns that did it right
One campaign that captured the attention and acclaim of many was last year’s “The Myth,” a stunning two-minute short that gets to the heart of the model minority myth and brings light to a devastating side of the Asian American experience. Wieden+Kennedy’s Nguyen underlined the power of seeing complex aspects of his identity mirrored back through advertising.
“I found it cathartic to experience inner thoughts I’ve had—unformed thoughts cautiously shared on group texts—articulated on the grand stage of advertising. Representation in the work is important,” he said.
Nguyen’s peers were equally as affected by the work.
“‘The Myth’ blew me away,” said FCB’s Wico. “There were so many nuances of Asian culture—and the Asian experience—authentically woven into every second of that work. The brutal honesty and raw nature of the storytelling illustrated the tension that Asians face every day. And it forced viewers to examine their own biases and actions that fuel the model minority myth. I’ve never seen such an unvarnished take on what Asians experience every day.”
For Ravi Singh, copywriter at FCB New York, it was the Asian American Federation’s travel poster series “Where Are You From?” created by Droga5, part of Accenture Song, that not only echoed his experience but named it.
“It takes an annoying, yet common experience for Asian Americans and transforms it into something positive, bringing their unique hometown experiences to life with commissioned illustrations based on their own words,” Singh said. “It’s a powerful way to demonstrate that when someone says where they’re from but gets challenged by a really condescending question, their lived experience is being dismissed.”
Jennifer Kohl, U.S. head of media at VMLY&R, applauded P&G’s “The Name” for getting to the heart of a part of the Asian American experience common to so many.
“When my immigrant parents were grappling with what to name me, they deliberated between Jing Mei and Won Lee and eventually landed on Jennifer, the most common name for the time,” Kohl said. “Their aim was for me to fit it, not stand out and rather to blend into American culture. So, I often say the very first decision made about my life, my name, was influenced by bias and racism. Consequently, ‘The Name’ deeply resonated with me and many others in the Asian community.”
Valerie Williams-Sanchez, VP of multicultural intelligence and relevance at Blue Chip, shared a similar appreciation for the P&G campaign, highlighting how wide and deep its impact was.
“I appreciate this ad for its strong resonance, not only with Korean consumers but for consumers from all walks of life who can relate to having their own name mispronounced,” she said. “The ad addresses name mispronunciation as a cultural reality, a microaggression that hinders one’s sense of belonging, bringing into focus how something seemingly frivolous actually means so much more.”
Another campaign that struck a chord was #TogetherWeBuild from The Asian American Foundation. Chary Sathea, senior account supervisor, digital, at Praytell, and a member of the agency’s ElevAsian employee resource group, applauded the foundation’s work for its messaging, use of social media and ability to balance “the hard truths while celebrating our community.”
To Sathea, the campaign “captured how most folks in our community feel, including myself. It addresses our past, hopes for the future and reinforces that we are Americans.”
For the parents of young kids—but also anyone who grew up watching "Sesame Street"—it was the unveiling of TJ, the show's first-ever Filipino American Muppet, that had the deepest impact, with a segment themed around having the confidence to use a second language.
“As a Filipino and Chinese American born and raised in Alabama, I see a lot of progress in mainstream media, but knowing the foundation is being built at its earliest levels gives me tremendous hope for the future,” said Niki Lim Roden, director of business development at Big Communications.
On a similar note, Stephanie Twining, VP of social media at Amp Agency, highlighted the work a handful of brands have done to raise the subject with younger audiences.
“This could be because I’m a mother of two children, ages 6 and 3, but I am always impressed with brands that can speak about Asian love, heritage and celebration to younger audiences,” she said. “Young families can learn so much that they can implement into their children’s lives at a young age, so they will grow up with the understanding of equality and the importance of celebrating many cultures.”
“McDonald's teamed up with leading Asian digital content creator Karen X Cheng, leveraging AI-powered ads, metaverse experience and AR filters, to build an immersive digital experience to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit,” Prado said. “Its tech-forward effort successfully uplifted the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community in an innovative and unconventional way.”
But, at the end of the day, the work that likely had the greatest impact across the widest swaths of the AANHPI community was not a campaign at all but the Oscar-winning film “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
“There have been some exemplary campaigns, #StopAsianHate being a sobering reflection,” said Jerry Teo, director of media technology at Mass Minority. “But in 2023 thus far, the months-long awards season campaign for the movie ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ to me probably comes the closest in celebrating long-overdue hardworking AANHPI icons like James Hong and Ke Huy Quan, while at the same time finally giving them the platforms to inspire love and understanding against hate and ignorance.”
While the efforts made toward shining a light on the AANHPI experience during the month of May is meaningful to many, with impacts that span far past the end of the month, there is an undeniable need for greater representation every day of the year.
“It's essential to continue supporting and uplifting AANHPI communities beyond just the month of May and to work toward addressing and combating the rise of anti-Asian hate incidents,” said Praytell’s Sathea.
She noted that after the spread of so much anti-Asian sentiment and unchecked misinformation over the course of the pandemic, brands and agencies carry a special responsibility to keep the conversation going throughout the year.
VMLY&R’s Kohl was more blunt.
“If I am honest, really honest, I feel that there is this splash around Lunar New Year and AANHPI month and then it’s back to the same old same old,” Kohl said.“And guess what? I am Chinese 365, 24/7. My identity is not confined to Chinese New Year or the month of May. While we can consider slight progress that representation seems more apparent during two marketing months, I would love to see representation throughout the year.”
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Ashley Joseph is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Montreal, and has been a Contributing Editor for Studio 30 covering stories from the Ad Age Amp community since 2018. She also writes about food, travel and beauty when not developing content for brands.
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