In college, I was asked to read H.G. Wells, “The Invisible Man”. I was gobsmacked by the idea and thought how amazing it would be to be invisible for a day, a week, a month. I could sneak into movie theatres without paying. There would be nothing I couldn’t do.
I lived in Asia for more than 15 years, running creative agencies that spanned 13 countries, an experience second to none. When people ask me how much I enjoyed my time there, I tell them “You can take the man out of Asia, but you can’t take Asia out of the man.” I continue my love affair with most things Asian.
These days, when I watch movies or TV commercials that have an Asian cast or theme running through them, my radar rises up in fear that they will be filled with the typical stereotypes.
I have no doubt that Asians like to see other Asians in the films – people who look like them. People with brown skin or yellow skin.
After my many years living across Asia, I don’t profess to know everything there is to know about the many Asian cultures, but I am able to relate to many of the issues that Asian-Canadians must face here in their new home country. For one thing, they are ambicultural, moving between their new Canadian cultures and that of their home country. From my point of view, I think they’re very lucky to have both cultures. They should be proud of it. Save for those times when they may face some isolated racist remarks that may come from some uneducated or jealous white Canadians.
Over the weekend I watched several movies with Asian themes running through them that really appealed to me. They could be considered both mainstream and multicultural, but most of all, they challenged the status quo. They reminded me of why some things must be difficult for minorities and people of colour.
These movies had complex themes with their combination of both Asian and Western worlds. They were at times hilarious, cool and endearing, as much as they were rebellious, desperate, important and heartbreaking.
It got me to thinking, if a movie can move me in this way, the ads we see on TV or online could, and should, aspire to that creative level as well. Ads, like movies, should be able to tell human stories and connect with people in honest and authentic ways. Ads try and tell people what they should think and feel about products or services.
I’m not saying that ads should always tell stories of the struggles that people of different ethnicities face in a white society while selling Big Macs or Nike footwear. I don’t necessarily think it’s appropriate.
But when an Asian sees how he or she is represented in an ad, they are certain to give it a little more attention if only to see how they are portrayed. If I am watching a film or TV commercial with my Asian friends and work colleagues, I cringe when I see them represented by stereotypes.
Let’s remember – advertising does more than just sell products. It represents the personality of a brand, much the same as the brand were a person.
Ads reflect who we are and how others see us, so they have a responsibility to reflect an authentic representation of Asian-Canadians in a more inclusive manner.
True, we are seeing more diversity in ads these days with people of all colours being represented in print, TV, out-of- home and digital display ads. It’s a good thing and it represents Canada’s diversity, which the country has become known for around the world.
But there still is a problem that needs to be addressed.
In the midst of this “diversity” movement, I believe some marketers are pushing “diversity” only to satisfy some sort of political correctness. They are afraid to offend anyone. Unfortunately, they are missing the point.
Today, Canada has a population of more than 6.8 million foreign-born residents – that’s about the size of the population of Quebec. They’re highly educated, brand loyal, and they spend more than $100 billion annually on consumer goods. One would think that more sophisticated brand clients would want to reach out to this growing demographic.
So when companies and their ad agencies only go so far as to insert an ethnic face into their communications to appear “multicultural”, the ethnic consumer is certainly going to see through this as patronizing, and for some, offensive.
What is needed in multicultural advertising is richer, more authentic storytelling. But this can only work when the roles of the talent used in the advertising are presented in meaningful ways – not used as props to “look” diverse.
It is the job of the advertising agency to create connections between our clients, and the consumer – and do it in ways that respect and honour their culture. Ethnic consumers need to know that, above all, they are recognized, understood, empowered and welcomed. Much the same way that I enjoy watching a great movie or TV ad that recognizes the diverse, changing face of Canada.