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Public Perception on Asian American Stereotypes in Advertisements

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Introduction

The United States, known as “the melting pot”, consists of people from various regions. It’s nearly impossible for us to understand every single race thoroughly, that’s why people came up with stereotypes. A stereotype is “an over-generalized belief about a particular category of people” (Cardwell, Mike). People make the generalization (stereotype) based on a small group of a particular race. However, these stereotypes might not be true when applied all people in that race. They sometimes even create negative impact on the public’s perception towards the races being stereotyped.

According to U.S. Census data, in 2005, U.S. consisted of 4.3% Asian (U.S. Census Bureau), and the Asian American population is projected to reach 10% by 2050 (Taylor, Landreth & Bang). In the past, Asian American have been overlooked in the study of advertising portrayals. But with the increasing population, they are getting more and more attention. With more attention on Asian American, the effects created by stereotypes become more significant.

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After seeing dozens of scientific interviews were featured by Asian (or Asian American) people, I doubted that all the astonishing technologies were developed by Asian (or Asian American). Asian American figures are also present in commercials such as toothpaste adverts or educational adverts. There must be a reason for people using Asian American to market certain products. Thus, I decided to examine the topic on Asian American figures used in advertisements and how these portrayals reveal the stereotypical traits of Asian American.

In my research, I found out that Asian American frequently appear in advertisements which feature characteristics of Asian American stereotypes, and these stereotypical characteristics, especially the model minority traits, represent the product being advertised and make the stereotypes harder to be removed.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the origin of Asian American stereotypes. The earliest stereotypes of Asian American can be traced back to the 19th century when Asian people “invaded” the United States and were called “yellow perils”. Then in the 20th century, due to some of the positive traits such as industrious, politically inactive, studious, intelligent, and productive (Wikipedia), Asian American were seen as the “model minority”. Asian American and Pacific Islander spending power in the U.S. topped $1 trillion in 2018 and is projected to reach $1.3 trillion in 2023 (Lam). Nearly half (44% of Asian- Americans) have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 24% of the general population. Also, the median annual household income of Asian-Americans is $59,324, a higher figure than the national average of $49,445 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). The surging purchasing power of Asian American, the high average income of Asian American, and the so-called “good at math and science” make Asian American the “model minority”. The high purchasing power also make Asian American a potential commercially attractive group of people.

Let’s break down the stereotypes by gender. Male Asian American are seen as asexual and incompetent (Lee & Joo). The emasculated and asexual portrayal of male Asian American originally came from a cultural practice in the 1800s in Qing Dynasty, where men working in the palace are required to get emasculated. However, with the stereotypes being instilled to the American public, it is hard to remove the image even now that the cultural practice of emasculation has been abolished for more than 100 years.

Female Asian American stereotypes are more complicated. They appear as two categories with completely opposite characteristics. The first category describes Asian American women as generally tough and strong. One stereotype of this category is the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, an image of women that displays them as strong, domineering, deceitful, and mysterious. This stereotype originated in the West and came from the female villain in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. The other stereotype in this category is the “Tiger Mother” stereotype. The term “Tiger Mother” was coined by Amy Chua in her 2011 Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the origin of this concept can be traced back for 2000 years when Confucianism was proposed. Confucius promoted filial piety, enduring hardship, and dedicating oneself into academic success by pursuing knowledge. The idea of dedicating into academics and enduring hardship taught the “Tiger Mothers” to be strict on the children while the presence of filial piety partly makes the children hard to protest against his/her mom about whether he/she wants to be that way.

The typical stereotype of the submissive category of Asian American women is the portrayal of their docile, attractive, submissive, exotic, and sensual characteristics (Lee and Joo), also known as the “China doll” stereotype. “Asian women appearing in commercials were often featured as China dolls with the small, darkened eyes, straight hair with bangs, and a narrow, slit skirt” (Wilson II and Gutierrez, 283). The physical description of Asian American women as “dolls” demonstrates that they are “playthings”, and the word “China” also means porcelain, which may be an implication of the “fragility” (sexuality) of Asian American women.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Asian American people have higher median income and higher purchasing power than national average. In fact, 50% of ads portrayed Asians in the workplace, while African Americans, Latinos and Caucasians were more evenly portrayed in business, social and home settings. Asians were also found more in business (35.3%), computer (18.5%) and Internet (16.7%) advertisements than the other groups (Paek & Shah). To be more specific, 77.2% of ads in which Asian models appeared were for technology and business-related products (Taylor).

However, the figures above only show whether Asian American appear in advertisements frequently, but do not address the reason they are in them. To answer this question, Phua proposed an experiment in which three hypotheses were put forward, the most important one being “Model ethnicity has a significant effect on the attribution of the 6 model minority characteristics to high-tech devices in print advertisements” (Phua, 12). They also associated the model minority stereotype with six common characteristics, three of them being positive (Stylish, Intelligent, and Hardworking) and the other three negative (Boring, Passive, and Conservative).

In the experiment, the researchers made four different online surveys, and they featured four advertisements which differed in the products being advertised. For each advertisement, there were two variants, one was featured by Asian American and the other by Caucasian (Figure 1), and the other aspects were exactly the same, including clothing and background. The viewers of the advertisement were asked to evaluate the advertisements based on the six characteristics from the model minority stereotype.

Compared to previous researchers who found out that Asian Americans are over-represented in advertising for business and technology-related areas, Phua found out the reason they are being vastly used. The characteristics of the model minority stereotype can be associated with the products being advertised. Consumers convert the traits of Asian American model minority (in this study, Stylish, Intelligent, Hardworking, Boring, Passive, and Conservative) into the products. This may be a good thing, because consumers are happy to buy something that represents a good trait. However, this also a double-edged sword. Since the model minority have negative characteristics as well as positive ones, sometimes the approach to represent model minority traits in advertisements will backfire. This could also lead to more instilled stereotypes in the public, making it harder to eradicate the images and acknowledge the real image of Asian American.

In general, stereotypes instill false images into people’s mind. Stereotypes will never provide a comprehensive view of a specific race. People adopt them just for convenience. In the long term, the misunderstanding caused by stereotypes must be eradicated for the society to reach a balance and peace. People are indeed trying to move away from stereotyping, but sometimes it’s just ironic that people don’t claim they are stereotyping but they actually are.

From figure 2, we can clearly see the situation. When being asked whether the negative stereotypes of Chinese American is true, about half of them didn’t think so. Here comes the ironic part. If half of the people don’t negatively stereotype Chinese American, the overall attitude toward them should at least be half-half. However, the result turned out to be 68% negative, much higher than we would expect if stereotyping wasn’t present (as they claimed). We are not sure whether these people did this on purpose or subconsciously, but subconsciously stereotyping might make the process or erasing stereotypes more difficult.

Another serious impact of the stereotypes on Asian Americans is the potentially negative effects on Asian American mental health. Since the model minority stereotype describes Asian American as well-adjusted and high-functioning, it may be easy to overlook or misunderstand their mental needs (Cheng, 3). In a similar way, the model minority stereotype is also harmful to Asian American students who are struggling with their study. They might be overlooked because they are “supposed” to be successful in academics.

The model minority stereotype consists characteristics that may be a threat to people of other races. For example, many people claim that Asians excel at academics and occupy many supreme universities. This is also true in job area. Due to the diligence and dedication described by the model minority stereotype, Asians are claimed to be constantly taking away job positions from Americans and other races, resembling the “yellow perils” era where Americans are afraid of Asians. According to a research done by Nguyen, the fact that Asian Americans are taking away jobs from the market actually irritates some people of other races.

Conclusion

Since the beginning of Asian immigration and the “yellow peril” stereotype, the population of Asian American has been increasing drastically. In turn, the stereotypes of Asian Americans have become more diverse. With the most prevalent being the “model minority” stereotype, technological and business-related advertisements feature the characteristics described in the model minority stereotype. Customers are able to identify the model minority traits in advertisements, and the products can potentially gain a higher sale if using Asian American figures or stereotypes. Nevertheless, Asian American stereotypes pose some serious social problems. People don’t tend to admit that they use stereotypes to judge Asian people. The balance in the society is also threatened because people think Asian have taken away their study and work opportunities, causing envy and even anger.

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