Shankar on her new book, Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian-American Consumers

https://www.dukeupress.edu/Advertising-Diversity

Interview by Ilana Gershon:

I have to say that it is downright inspired to look ethnographically at how advertising agencies create iconic and compelling images of Asian Americans as a racial group.  By choosing this site, you are able to reveal so much of how difficult it is to treat Asian Americans as a unified group, as well as showing in detail how the racial images we are surrounded by are constructed through the effort of convincing co-workers and clients that an ad will persuade.   And now you are looking at spelling bees as a mass-mediated event for telling a melting pot story.   Can you talk a little bit about your process for deciding on a research project and that an ethnographic site will allow you to explore the kinds of questions you want to ask?

Each of these research projects partially emerged from the one that preceded it. The advertising project grew out of my Desi Land research with South Asian American teenagers and their families in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time with people in their homes and many watched diasporic channels on satellite TV. I noticed ads specifically aimed at South Asians in the US. Being familiar with Indian advertising from my numerous visits, I knew these ads were different and was quite curious about who was making them. After much online research about agencies and several rounds of emails and phone calls, a few agencies welcomed me to conduct interviews. One agreed to allow me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork provided I sign a nondisclosure agreement. Thanks to the generosity of that agency, I was able to do enough research to write a book. In my survey of agencies, I found one that had developed a public relations campaign for an insurance company and called it the “South Asian Spelling Bee.” Having already observed the streak of South Asian American kids winning the National Spelling Bee, I really wanted to know more. I found it slightly simpler to set up the spelling bee research because these organizations were not creating “proprietary content” like advertisements, but rather, administering a contest. Still, because this activity is seasonal—they call it “bee season”—it took me a while to get to know spellers, families, judges, and others. I just returned from attending my fourth National Spelling Bee and finally feel like I really know people in that world. In both of these projects, there was so much to observe that my questions were either well addressed or replaced by more interesting ones.

 

African American advertising agencies were the first agencies founded to address diversity.   How do you think the strategies and solutions African American ad agencies developed has shaped what Asian American agencies do?  Or in other words, how have the specific quandaries advertisers face in addressing African Americans or Latinos shaped what it means to advertise to any racialized group, regardless of whether the solutions that originally evolved are appropriate for that particular racialized group?

You’re right that African American advertising agencies were the first agencies to address racial diversity, but what is also interesting is how many “general market” or mainstream agencies also developed in-house units to target this population. They were, and still are, called “Urban markets,” which clearly indexes the perceived socioeconomic status of African Americans with little qualification about the social and political implications of this term. What differs between African American advertising and other minority advertising is primarily representations of language and culture. While African Americans are considered to be an already “assimilated” population that nonetheless has their own specialized TV, print, and radio media through which they can be directly reached, Latinos and Asian Americans are imagined to be recent immigrants who are best reached through far more explicit means of in-language copy and overt cultural representation. What currently transcends any of these racial categories is the ongoing need for multicultural advertising to demonstrate their relevance to corporate clients who question whether ethnically specific advertising is even necessary when so many of these consumers are also reported to consume mainstream media.

 

I was struck while reading how much this is a book about cultural expertise.   This is particularly vivid when you write about how vulnerable Asian American ad executives are because their clients might dismiss their pitches once they have consulted with their co-workers.  These are co-workers who don’t know anything about advertising but who happen to have the appropriate cultural background and happen to disagree with the Asian American ad team’s starting premises about that Asian culture.  Often the Asian American ad team can’t disagree because they claim cultural authority on the same grounds as the client’s co-workers.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how people in this profession understand expertise in general, and how this connects to the cultural expertise that some people have in this system.

To address this question I have to reference the AMC series Mad Men. Fans of the series may recall that ad man Don Draper was a fur coat salesman before he stumbled into advertising. I think this character point remains relevant, in that many ad executives seem to have found their way into advertising despite a lack of academic training in it. While ad executives are highly skilled and their years of experience make them experts, advertising is the less scientific arm of marketing, in which ad makers rely on existing market research to develop creative concepts. Sometimes these conceits miss their mark, and this trial and error is tied to advertising’s aim of not simply selling products to people, but creating aspirational imagery to drive consumer spending. Asian American advertising additionally involves a complex set of cultural and linguistic considerations that makes arbitrating cultural expertise quite difficult. While ad executives do all they can to maintain authority over the content of their creative work, as workers for hire, they often have to bend to the will of their clients. I think this sometimes takes a toll on ad executives, especially when their clients are insensitive and in some moments, just plain racist. For the most part they seem to see this as part of the job and don’t let it define their creative aspirations.

 

You mention that advertising executives use the terms iconicity and indexicality all the time (p. 35).  What was it like to do research in a context where you and your informants seem to share similar analytical categories for understanding communicative practices (including the importance of cultural difference), and yet in practice these categories are deployed in very different ways?

I’m fairly certain they were not directly citing Peirce, but rather, using terms common in texts about advertising and visual culture more broadly. These terms appear in analytical registers used in the critical readings of art, film, television, and other visual genres. Ad executives were using these terms to create and construct meaning, rather than analyze and deconstruct it. The very deliberate process of what they thought could be iconic, or what a particular image or phrase might index to an imagined viewer, was anthropologically quite fascinating. Their use of these terms was ethnographically revealing of the intended meaning of their choices. This semiotic gap between their deployment of these concepts in their creative work and my use of them to analyze their work is something I aimed to address in my use of “assemblage.” I wanted to consider their cultural and linguistic ideologies alongside their creative work, as well as how people actually read and respond to their work. Addressing this range of semiotic possibilities allowed me to productively consider their understanding of these analytical categories alongside mine, as well as those of clients and audiences.

 

You began this research in 2008, and mention that there have been noticeable changes over the course of your four years of research.   Did you see any patterns in these changes?

When I began in 2008, Asian American ad executives were actively championing diversity but were often stymied by the lack of market research about Asian American consumers. The 2010 Census was a watershed event, in that it both documented the growing numbers of Asian Americans and Latinos while it also offered further details about the “purchasing power” of Asian Americans. While this latter group is heterogeneous and certainly not uniformly upwardly mobile, this new census data allowed Asian American ad agencies to more powerfully reiterate their rationale for of multicultural advertising and helped justify its value.

Shalini Shankar is a Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Advertising Diversity  is available through Duke University Press.

Lori Hall-Araujo’s “Carmen Miranda: Ripe for Imitation”

carmen-miranda

When asked to say something about page 99 and its representation of my dissertation, my fingers and toes were crossed that the page would include an image.  My dissertation, “Carmen Miranda: Ripe for Imitation,” is concerned with the Classic Hollywood star’s dress and performance and the significance of the countless Carmen imitations.  In all there are 58 images in my dissertation.  Given my page count, that meant there was about a 33% chance I’d land on a photo or film still.  No such luck.  Instead page 99 discusses the extractability of Carmen’s cinematic performance: musically (she was a talented singer accomplished in a Brazilian vocalization akin to American jazz scatting) and in terms of her comic dance and performance style.  If ever a dissertation needed audio files, film clips, and still images this one did!  The very extractability of sound, moving image, and performance I discuss on page 99 is represented entirely with printed words.

The good news is that university presses (such as Duke, University of California) are beginning to publish open access, digital books.  The peer review process is as rigorous as for traditional publications yet the digital book creates opportunities for incorporating sound and film clips, while reducing the cost of publishing the many color still images I need to support the written word of my revised dissertation.

Page 99 reflects the value of my original research while highlighting the constraints I faced and accepted in the dissertation writing process.  Accepting the limitations meant completing my degree in a timely fashion.  My mentor didn’t quite put it like this but in essence he told me: “You don’t have to wear all your jewels to the prom.  It’s ok to don a few baubles and save your turban for the next big occasion.”

Lori Hall-Araujo, “Carmen Miranda: Ripe for Imitation.” Phd. diss, Indiana University, 2013.

Website: http://www.lorihallaraujo.com/

Daniel Ginsberg, Math Teaching and Learning

On page 99, I am a conversation analyst. The top of the page features two of Schegloff’s transcripts illustrating two different sorts of repair initiation: the kind of thing you might say if I asked a question and you didn’t understand, followed by what you’d say if *you* asked *me* a question and didn’t understand my answer. I bring up these patterns to highlight their absence in my own field work. Schegloff’s examples come from everyday conversation, but I conducted research in mathematics classrooms, and teachers and students do not ask for repetition and clarification in such a democratic way. In one classroom, I saw a teacher orchestrating class participation such that students would provide corrections to their classmates’ mistakes. In another, I observed what happens when the statement you didn’t understand is not spoken aloud but written in chalk on a blackboard. And in both cases, I realized that “understanding mathematics” was equated with “finding the right answer,” as all conjecture, supposition, incomplete learning and conceptual knowledge were eclipsed by the authority of the teacher and the textbook.

Now, in general, I am not a conversation analyst. This is simply the methodology that I selected for that chapter, which dealt with the question, *How do sequences of classroom interaction realize ideologies of mathematical knowledge?* Elsewhere, I considered the utility of mathematical notation alongside other communicative systems such as language and gesture, as well as the ways that students think about “math person” as a kind of identity that may be more or less in conflict with other aspects of their self-concept. These areas of inquiry required different methodologies: multimodal interaction analysis, narrative analysis, ethnography. And yet, in every case, the data led me to similar conclusions: it’s often difficult for students to see themselves as successful mathematics learners. Educators know this—we all do—but my point is that their difficulty is wrapped up in particular practices of talk and interaction. Put into practice, this knowledge may suggest ways to make mathematics instruction more equitable.

Daniel Ginsberg. 2015. “Multimodal Semiotics of Mathematics Teaching and Learning.” Ph.d diss., Georgetown University. <https://www.academia.edu/19577481/Multimodal_Semiotics_of_Mathematics_Teaching_and_Learning>

Daniel Ginsberg is a Professional Fellow at the AAA.

Twitter: @NemaVeze

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