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.
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