Stereotyping Asian Americans in U.S. Advertising – Marketing Outcomes and Cultural Implications

May 06, 2021
Stereotyping Asian Americans in U.S. Advertising – Marketing Outcomes and Cultural Implications

Illustration by Janet Sung for Refinery29

This paper was originally submitted as a written assignment (research paper) for ENG 102 Writing Academic Research Papers (Spring 2021) with professor Michael Cohen.

The Asian American minority in the United States is a large and diverse group consisting of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other South Asian people. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted Asian Americans coming from the Middle East or Post-Soviet states are not generally defined as members of this minority. Since East Asians constitute a considerable proportion of the US population, it is worth examining how the American society perceives their ethnic identity.

One way of answering this question is by analyzing Asian-American participation in US advertising. Being a relatively well-assimilated group with big purchasing power, Asian Americans are an attractive marketing target. However, in commercials, their ethnic image is confined to a set of popular assumptions about the members of the minority. Some of these assumptions are that Asian Americans are good at science and technology, successful at their careers, and lack social skills.

These generalized perceptions create stereotypes that oversimplify the personal attributes of a large body of people. Stereotyping in marketing affects consumers’ attitudes towards both the minority group and the advertised product. It is unfavorable to Asian Americans because it breeds prejudice and false expectations towards their ethnicity, slowing their assimilation into the host society. That is why it is important for advertisers to take action to portray Asian Americans more accurately. To justify those claims, one should examine what the main stereotypes are, how they alter consumer behavior, and how they affect the minority group in the long run.

To demonstrate how Asian-Americans are stereotyped in ads, two positive and one negative stereotype will be viewed. The first one is related to the assumption that members of this minority group are technologically skilled. According to Paek and Shah’s content analysis of magazine ads, Asian Americans are frequently displayed in a business environment testing or mastering computer technology. Such images are often accompanied by a caption claiming people will be financially successful when they grasp the new Internet features. Moreover, according to the authors’ quantitative examination, 19% of the computer ads featured Asian Americans (Paek and Shah 235). In comparison, this minority constitutes only around 6% of the US population. Another analysis of advertisements in magazines conducted by Taylor and Lee indicates Asian Americans usually appear in mechanics or science-related periodicals and are less likely to be featured in women’s or general interest publications (243). The authors also compare Asian-American participation in technology-based ads with that of Hispanics and African Americans. The researchers conclude Asian spokespeople appear much more frequently in this category (Taylor and Lee 240). This means this stereotype is not determined by marketers’ desire to generally feature more minorities but is confined to one specific ethnic group. Hence, such findings prove the technology stereotype about Asian Americans does exist and advertisers try to utilize it to make their products more desirable.

Another wide-spread assumption frequently applied in ads concerns Asian Americans’ financial success and affluence. According to Paek and Shah’s content analysis, 50% of Asian-American participation in magazine advertising was set in a business environment. The authors suggest that not only are Asians represented as good at their jobs, but they sometimes appear superior to Caucasian workers. In one of the magazine ads from Paek and Shah’s research, an Asian man is calling his wife to tell her he must work late. This suggests the man is so self-disciplined that he is willing to sacrifice his free time for greater job efficiency. The authors claim his actions could be associated with a supreme work ethic and a tendency to prioritize career over family (233). The researchers also discuss the affluence stereotype often linked to Asian Americans. Another magazine advertisement features a retired couple practicing gardening as a hobby. The text next to the image outlines some gardening tools along with their prices. It turns out the overall cost of the activity is around two thousand dollars – this means the elderly family is rich enough to afford such an expensive hobby. The idea behind this, the authors state, is that Asian Americans generally achieve the “American Dream” to retire financially stable (Paek and Shah 234).

Taylor and Lee also analyze the success and affluence stereotype. According to their research, more than 70% of Asian-American participants in magazine ads were featured in business periodicals. Moreover, when two or more members of this ethnicity were cast in advertisements, they would often be portrayed as coworkers (Taylor and Lee 243). This means marketers tend to put Asian Americans in a formal rather than intimate environment. This phenomenon is described by Taylor and Stern as the “all work, no play” stereotype (50). This assumption bears a positive as well as a negative connotation. Although this stereotype praises Asian work ethic, it also suggests this ethnicity does not value its social connections.

Thus, the third common perception that should be examined is Asian Americans’ lack of communication skills. This stereotype represents the idea the minority members thrive only in a professional environment and are unable to socialize in everyday settings. Taylor and Stern argue Asian Americans are severely underrepresented in informal contexts and are rarely portrayed as family members. The authors’ quantitative examination concludes that only 15% of the ads display Asians in a domestic environment (Taylor and Stern 57). Also, according to Taylor and Lee’s content analysis, Asian Americans appear staying at home with their relatives in only two of the 1616 cases (244). These statistics show marketers find it difficult to picture Asian Americans enjoying quality time with their families or just relaxing at home. This stereotype demonstrates advertisers’ misunderstanding of East Asian cultures where family is one of the central values. It also suggests being hardworking makes people less affectionate or outgoing which of course is untrue.

Wang and Chen also discuss this assumption by examining Asian-American portrayals in ads of higher education institutions. According to their research, however, only male representatives of the ethnic group fit the “all work, no play” stereotype. In university websites, male Asian Americans are often depicted as antisocial, nerdy, and asexual. In images, they frequently appear in study settings such as laboratories and classrooms where they are not engaged in conversation. Moreover, Asian men usually play background characters who are perceived as unattractive, passive, and shy. In contrast, stereotyping of Asian women is based on general female assumptions rather than ethnic ones. They are often displayed as friendly, approachable, and submissive (Wang and Chen 80-83). This is an interesting phenomenon because one witnesses a reversal of gender roles – Asian females seem more active compared to males.

Apart from how Asian Americans are stereotyped, one should consider with what frequency this ethnicity appears in advertisements. According to Lee and Joo, the proportion of the minority’s participation in magazine ads significantly exceeds their actual percentage of the US population (664). This hypothesis is also supported by Paek and Shah who claim American advertisers pay special attention to Asians because of their big purchasing power (226). The influence Asians have on the American market makes them very likely to be stereotyped, even when they are not the target consumers. That is why one should determine whether stereotyping could be justified by favorable consumer responses, or it does not affect marketing outcomes.

Consumer responses, however, could vary depending on the kind of product that is advertised. Also, one should consider how the minority and the dominant group would react differently to ethnic stereotyping. In his research, Phua examines people’s reactions when Asians and Caucasians promoted technology-based products. His study analyses how the technology stereotype affects consumer behavior when applied in TV advertising. Phua’s investigation shows when Asian Americans participated in commercials, minority members would be affected by the stereotyping. They would establish a psychological connection with the media character because of their shared ethnic identity. More specifically, Asian consumers would associate with the promoter’s technological skillfulness – an indicator they accepted the stereotype. Caucasian viewers were also influenced by stereotyping. After seeing the commercials, they were more likely to translate the characters’ personal attributes to the whole minority group (Phua 402-411).

Phua’s study also investigates viewers’ brand attitude and purchase intention after being exposed to stereotyping. It turns out, watchers from both the dominant and the minority groups expressed less satisfaction with the products when they were advertised by Asian Americans. This is because customers’ brand evaluations usually depend on what impression the media characters make. In this case, viewers would often perceive Asians as boring and conservative. Thus, the seemingly high expertise Asian Americans have with technology products makes their characters less intriguing (Phua 410). This phenomenon proves that even when a minority appears in ads with its positive traits, such stereotyping can still negatively affect consumer behavior. It also shows that though Asians might react favorably to the stereotypes, their brand attitude and purchase intention can be as low as the ones of the dominant group.

While Phua claims stereotyping Asians in technology-based advertisements negatively impacts product evaluation, Cohen gives a different viewpoint. Focusing on Caucasian consumer responses, she suggests white people are likely to react more favorably when Asians promote electronic devices. In her consumer behavior analysis, Cohen examines how customers’ product evaluation varies depending on what ethnicity is cast in the respective ad. When it comes to promoting technology-based merchandise, the research confirms people would rate the product higher when it was advertised by an Asian. It appears people deemed the product more reliable when they associated it with a member of the Asian-American minority. The author suggests consumers felt the product was first-rate since they imagined it was an outcome of high-quality Asian labor (Cohen 19). Cohen’s idea contradicts Phua’s argument; thus one cannot draw a conclusion as to how exactly the technology stereotype alters consumer product responses.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to examine people’s reactions to Asian Americans advertising other types of products. In her analysis, Cohen also accounts for reactions to Asians promoting goods related to social status, such as men’s suits. Suits are part of this category because they convey the notion that those who wear them are successful businesspeople. Cohen’s research suggests Caucasians did not show satisfaction when this type of products was advertised by members of the minority (20). A possible explanation for such consumer reaction would be the discrimination Asians face in their career path. The author argues racism stemming from World War II and the Vietnam War still lingers in white people’s minds (Cohen 19). That is why seeing the minority group advertising social status goods can make Caucasians respond negatively. It must be noted this idea should not be confused with the affluence stereotype discussed above – these two assumptions are not mutually exclusive.

Cohen also analyzes a third type of advertisements – the ones used to promote convenience products such as food and medicine. Her research shows white consumers found no significant differences between Asian and Caucasian models (Cohen 21). A possible explanation for this would be the absence of stereotyping when advertisements featured members of the minority. In this case, viewers would not associate the media characters with their ethnicity because the products they promoted were essential and equally used and desired by all members of the American society.

One might deduce when stereotyping is evidently missing, discussing consumer responses to Asian participation in ads would be irrelevant. Indeed, this might be the case when examining white customers’ reactions. However, one should take a more critical approach when analyzing the minority members’ attitudes. Often, people who do not belong to the dominant ethnicity feel disturbed when their group is portrayed in the media, no matter the setting and the context. Normally, the minority is so determined to prove it is misrepresented that it starts looking for stereotypes even when there are none. This phenomenon is defined by Hazzouri and Hamilton as “stigma consciousness” (374). According to the authors, stigma consciousness measures the proneness of an individual to feel upset when his or her ethnic group appears in the media. Thus, those with high stigma consciousness are more likely to classify a certain portrayal of their minority as stereotyping compared to people with low stigma consciousness. To demonstrate this concept, the researchers analyzed how members of different minorities react to advertisements featuring members of their ethnic groups. The study concludes people with high stigma consciousness would often feel their ethnicity was misrepresented even when there was nothing disturbing in the portrayal. Consequently, the ad evaluation and purchase intention of these individuals would be negatively affected (Hazzouri and Hamilton 375).

Being acquainted with the concept of stigma consciousness, one could view Cohen’s deductions from another perspective. Had she examined the minority instead of the majority’s perceptions, responses to Asian participation in convenience products ads would probably be different. It can be speculated Asians with high stigma consciousness would be disturbed even in the absence of stereotyping. As a result, minority members might not evaluate these ads as highly as the dominant group. Such findings indicate those consumers are highly sensitive. This means every appearance of the minority in the media has the potential to cause a disturbance. That is why it is important to consider how misrepresenting Asian Americans in advertising affects their ethnic group in the long run.

One might think positive portrayals should work in favor of the minority. However, both positive and negative stereotyping may lead to some undesired consequences. Firstly, due to positive stereotyping, Asians often face higher expectations compared to other groups. That is because the majority subconsciously assumes all Asian Americans are technologically savvy, smart, and prosperous. Via interactions with the minority, the dominant group unknowingly pressures Asian people to meet these expectations. Striving to fit the stereotype, some Asian Americans often decide to pursue careers in business and technology they do not find attractive. If they perform poorly in such fields, they are likely to have low self-esteem. Moreover, Asians might feel alienated from their ethnic group, which could lead to some conflicts within their community (Lee and Joo 665).

Apart from intra-group conflicts, stereotyping can disturb inter-group interactions. Due to the expectations Asian Americans face, they are often scrutinized by their Caucasian peers. According to Phua, Asian American students are more likely to be threatened, bullied, and discriminated against compared to students from other minority groups. Because of stereotyping, they are often made fun of for being antisocial, shy, and nerdy. Constantly facing such prejudice, Asian Americans find it hard to form healthy relationships with members of the dominant group, fearing they will not be accepted by the American society. Consequently, members of the minority and the majority groups begin to express less and less desire to communicate with one another. Lack of communication could gradually create alienation between the minority and host society (Phua 401).

Stereotyping of Asian-Americans can also restrain their career development. According to Paek and Shah, though a significant portion of this ethnic group works in business administration, Asian Americans are rarely given high-level managerial positions. That is because their diligence and high-quality labor are often taken for granted by most employers. Moreover, Asian Americans are perceived as too passive and characterless to dare to ask for a promotion. As a result, members of the minority are frequently exploited in the workplace and are not always equally treated as their Caucasian counterparts. Also, Asian Americans’ dominating portrayals in business or technology-based job positions limit their opportunities in humanities fields. The assumption that most Asian Americans take “number-crunching professions” may imply they do so because they cannot overcome the language barrier. Hence, they are less likely to be employed for jobs in humanities that require high language proficiency and good persuasion and debating skills (Paek and Shah 239).

Accumulation of such factors can slow Asian Americans’ assimilation into the host society. According to the cultivation theory mentioned by Taylor and Lee, as the media continues to stereotype minorities, people will deem ethnic portrayals as accurate (239). The reason is consumers normally devour media content passively and uncritically without questioning whether ethnic portrayals represent reality (Taylor and Stern 48). Although this is an unconscious cognitive response, it still indicates to Asian Americans that the majority has no interest to truly understand their culture. Moreover, stereotypical representations of Asian people imply the host society has no desire to regard them as individual beings rather than as parts of a collective body (Taylor and Lee 240).

This is how false portrayals of Asian Americans create a vicious cycle which slows the assimilation of the ethnic group into American society. Thus, one of the ways to achieve integration of the minority and to resolve inter- and intra-group conflicts would be to reduce stereotypical representations in advertising. Marketers should portray Asian Americans in more diverse settings to show Asian media characters can fit in all types of roles. For example, advertisers could feature members of this ethnic group in more commercials which are not related to technology or business. Marketers could also represent Asian Americans in more social situations instead of just in professional contexts. That way, they will make it clear most Asian people are not antisocial workaholics and can thrive in a friendly and informal environment. More non-stereotypical portrayals could also lead to higher ad evaluations and more favorable product attitude and purchase intentions. Thus, representing Asian Americans fairly and accurately can turn out beneficial not only to the minority group but also to advertisers (Lee and Joo 665).

Reducing stereotyping in advertising could be a vital step in combating prejudice and discrimination towards Asian Americans. Fair portrayals of the minority will show that the American society treats its members according to their personal qualities instead of their ethnicities. This is important for preventing inter-racial conflicts and hate speech and providing the ethnic group with equal opportunities to prosper. Moreover, limiting stereotyping could ensure members of the Asian-American minority live in a secure environment that encourages them to feel comfortable with their racial identities. That way, they will have the freedom to pursue whichever paths they choose without being judged or discriminated against. Most importantly, their assimilation into the host culture will be enhanced. As a result, the majority will realize Asian Americans are just normal people who deserve to be deemed authentic members of American society.