Why Is Pew Being Bashed for Its Glowing Study of Asian Americans?

The Portrait Comes Too Close to Stereotype -- Marketers Take Note

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The Pew Research Center seems to have done everything right in its recently released study on Asian Americans. The researchers incorporated a huge sample size -- 3,511 Asian Americans -- and conducted interviews in seven Asian languages. They ensured that the six largest Asian ethnic groups were represented by a sample size of at least 500, and each -- Chinese-, Filipino-, Indian-, Vietnamese-, Korean- and Japanese-Americans -- is analyzed separately in its own section of the report. Pew solicited support from a panel of Asian American scholars and worked closely with Janelle Wong, director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. Pew's pronouncement that Asian immigration, at 430,000 in 2010, had surpassed that of Hispanics, garnered headlines on all the major news networks, bringing worldwide attention to an oft ignored demographic.

Yet they're getting blasted by Asian American organizations.

Ironically, Pew's analysis is a glowing report on the state of Asians in the United States. Highlights include: Median household income is $66,000 for Asian Americans, compared to $49,800 for Americans as a whole; median household wealth is $83,500 vs. $68,529. Nearly half of all Asian American adults (49%) have a college degree, compared to 28% of adults in the country as a whole. And Asian Americans are more satisfied with their lives overall (82% vs. 75%), their personal finances (51% vs. 35%) and the general direction of the country (43% vs. 21%).

Asian Americans could be described as a marketer's dream, or as Gregory Rodriguez called them, "the new Jews." So what's the problem?

The Daily Beast reports that more than 30 Asian and Pacific Island groups, "an alphabet soup of organizations," complained about the report. "This study perpetuates false stereotypes," charged the Japanese Citizens League. The Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund and the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education jointly announced that the study "only reinforces the mischaracterizations of Asian American students."

So what's the problem?

To begin with, the report ignores the vast socio-economic disparities among the many ethnicities and dialects that exist among Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. As New America Media points out, for example, the study's claim of Asian American success ignores the fact that over a third of Hmong, Cambodian and Laotian Americans do not have a high school diploma; these groups also have poverty rates that equal or exceed that of African Americans.

Said Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, "I would strongly caution against using this data to validate the 'model minority' myth. Our community is one of stark contrasts, with significant disparities within and between various subgroups."

From a marketing perspective, I agree that stereotyping any group, however innocent or well-intentioned, can backfire. In his book "The Asian American Movement," William Wei writes, "Whether negative or positive, stereotypes are essentially false images that obscure the complexity and diversity that is an inherent feature of Asian Americans as well as other people. Whether it be the Chinese launderer, the Korean grocery store owner, or the South Asian Maharaja, this kind of imagery reinforces the stereotype in the American mind that Asians, American or not, are 'other'."

Pew is standing by its study. In response to criticism, Cary Funk, a Pew senior researcher said, "What we're trying to do is portray the information and present it in a way that is clear to everyone. And one of the things we're not trying to do is take a stand. We're not advocates one way or another, and we're not in the business of trying to tell people what to think about this information."

There is a valuable lesson here for marketers, who are often given the chance to explain a campaign deemed as insensitive or insulting only after a brand has been damaged. Do market research. Tune in to your consumers' sensibilities, particularly when issues of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are involved. Target , but make an effort to reflect nuance, demonstrating to consumers that you respect their diversity. And stay away from stereotypes. Good or bad, you're likely to be hearing from the watchdogs.

David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation
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