When It Comes to Slaying Asian-American Stereotypes, Ads Lead the Way

Asian- Pacific American Heritage Month Is a Good Time to Mark Significant Advances

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Before May runs out, let's spend a few moments thinking about the importance of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, a time when the country recognizes the contributions and achievements of Americans of Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander heritage.

May heralds two important moments in history for the United States and Americans of Asian-American ancestry. In May 1843, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in America, and in May 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed by a large number of Chinese immigrants.  

President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution of Congress in 1978 to proclaim Asian-Pacific American Heritage Week an annual observance.  In 1992, President George H. W. Bush extended the week to a month-long celebration.  Each year since then, every sitting president has issued a proclamation commemorating May as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have a great deal to celebrate this year.  The last U.S. Census placed Asian Americans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the country, outpacing even Latinos. There are more than 18.3 million Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, about 6.2 percent of the U.S. population.

Fifty percent of Asian Americans 25 years and older have graduated from a four-year college or university, with 48 percent attaining jobs in management. The median household income for Asian Americans now hovers around $70,000 per annum, significantly higher than the national household average of  $49,000 - $50,000.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders own a disproportionately larger number of businesses than the national average.  More than 1.6 million businesses are owned or were founded by Asian Americans, including well known brands such as Forever 21, Panda Express, Vera Wang Couture, Yogurtland and YouTube.  

Asian American and Pacific Islander actors, including Carrie Ann Inaba, Ken Jeong, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kunal Nayyar, Sandra Oh, Harry Shum, Jr., and George Takei, are performing on stage and are starring in more roles on television and the big screen, though we have not scored a major network show with an Asian-American theme since Margaret Cho starred in “All American Girl.”

But where we have made the most strides as performers is in roles provided by the advertising industry. During the past few years, more Asian Americans have been cast in mainstream roles in commercials for AT&T, Bank of America, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, esurance, Ikea, Kaiser Permanente, McDonald’s, Microsoft, State Farm, Target, Verizon, Walmart, Wells Fargo and many more.  These roles have opened up opportunities for dozens of actors and employees of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander heritage, and have left behind the loathsome stereotypes that were featured in advertisements in the past.  Part of this change from casting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with exaggerated foreign accents or in stereotypical roles such as gardeners, sumo wrestlers, gang members, laundrymen and martial artists, demonstrates a level of cultural acuity that has been lacking in the past at many advertising and marketing agencies.

Positive portrayals do come at a risk. Many people believe Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are model minorities. Overly positive portrayals perpetuate the myth that we are all successful, smart and wealthy.  And while many of us have succeeded as Americans and as immigrants in this country, we still suffer from some of the highest rates of poverty. More than 13 percent of Asian Americans and nearly 18 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live below the federal poverty line.  And while 50 percent of Asian American adults may graduate from college, a wide number of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders never complete college.  Many more cannot afford the rising costs for a post-secondary education, which keeps them from advancing in society.

The advertising industry has set the standard for portraying Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in more positive, professional roles and in more mainstream settings.  However, I want to add that it is perfectly fine to cast us in other roles such as teachers, janitors, hockey players, firemen, comedians, veterans, persons with disabilities and more.  We’re people just like everyone else, and we live in every community and at all levels of society.  We’re real, so keep it real.

Bill Imada is chairman-CEO of the IW Group, New York.


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