Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Starbucks Doesn't Think I'm Sexy (IV)

A few weeks ago I posted a few comments about a Starbucks Frappuccino commercial in which an Asian man is transformed into white singer Michael Buble, with follow-up posts here and here. Since then I've received a truly ridiculous amount of traffic from folks searching for information on the commercial--a motley group of advertising geeks, Buble fans, and even one guy who has a crush on the blonde woman who's the commercial's star.

A few of these visitors have taken a moment to deposit invective in my comment box, mostly along the lines of how I'm (guess what) "overreacting" or "reading way too much into it," etc. A few people have linked to me and described my position as, "This guy says the commercial is racist." That word, of course, never appeared in my posts. It's remarkable to me that, in an online and media world where venom and epithets flow so freely, the one thing you are not allowed to call someone is "racist": the label is so fearsome that people imagine you're saying it even when you're not.

I haven't seen much need to respond to these comments, although thanks to the magic of Blogger's comment notification they land in my inbox every couple of days. And to be fair, people have made positive comments as well. But this comment, which appeared yesterday, did seem worthy of response:
I was involved in producing the commericial. I wanna say that everyone turns into MB, not just the asian man. and he was supposed to be fashionable--not nerdy. the asian man just happened to outperform the rest of the auditioners and got the bigger role.

it's sad that we fought to get a racially balanced cast and because of comments like yours big companies are actually more hypersensitive about casting so-called "minorities." now companies will just be more likely to avoid the issue by avoiding casting non- caucasians. no joke. that's the fallout from this kind of stuff.
Well. Since the comment was posted anonymously (I say again: who the heck are all you anons hiding from?) I have no way of confirming if this person was really involved in the making of the commercial. But let's take this at face value for the moment.

The idea that multinational corporations and their advertising agencies make decisions based on what I, a blogger with maybe a hundred readers per day, and maybe one or two other bloggers, say, would be laughable if this person didn't seem to take it so seriously. I've seen no great tidal wave of protest against the ad: it's continued to run (indeed, you can now view it at the Starbucks website), and people are still obviously watching it with such relish they are coming to my site in droves looking for "Starbucks commercial hot blonde woman."

What's more interesting, though, is that what I would think of as a progressive position (a critique of racial stereotypes in the media) is being attacked in the name of another progressive position (the desire to have a "racially balanced" cast). In the producer's view, my remarks will actually have a reactionary effect; they will make advertisers afraid to put any people of color on TV at all, lest they be attacked by Asian American militants like myself. Really, I'm setting back the cause of racial equality.

Did you follow that? I think the logic here is worth untangling, because it's a perfect example of the way corporate "diversity" gets used as a cudgel against the "diverse" themselves.

1. The producer is proud of his/her efforts to create a "racially balanced" cast. Where on earth did the idea that this is a good thing come from, if not from remarks like mine--remarks that point out the way race is, or is not, represented in the media? You can't have it both ways: you can't take credit for putting people of color on TV and then turn around and say race on TV doesn't mean anything.

2. All representations are not created equal; mere inclusion is not enough. Would it be a good thing for Asian Americans if every show on television included an Asian playing the role of Charlie Chan, Suzie Wong, or Long Duk Dong?

3. Pardon me, but I don't think the producer understands his/her own commercial. The whole point of the bottled Frappuccino campaign--and the commercials' locations in offices--is the way the drink (surreally) transforms an otherwise dull environment. In other commercials that's taken the form of bands trailing an employee around and pushing away harassing coworkers; in this commercial it takes the form of nondescript coworkers being replaced by an ostensibly romantic figure (Buble). If the coworkers were all meant to be fashionable and appealing, the commerical just wouldn't make any sense. The commercial depends on the contrast between Buble and workaday dullness, whose racial representative would seem to be the Asian.

The producer also claims (as do several other commenters) that "everyone turns into Buble" in the commercial. Not true: only the Asian man is shown directly transformed into Buble (we see the Asian guy, he's hidden behind a door, then Buble appears wearing his clothes and glasses). The woman then proceeds through the office, which is now completely populated by Bubles, but no one else is shown directly turning into him. At the end, Buble is replaced by a white delivery guy.

4. If Starbucks advertising places such a premium on racial diversity, why is every single protagonist in every vignette that makes up the bottled-coffee campaign white? To put it differently: if the Asian American actor was really that good in the audition--if the commercial's casting was really purely meritocratic, as the producer suggests--why wasn't he chosen to be the star?

The simple answer is that it's still unthinkable for an Asian American--in particular, an Asian American man--to appear in the media as an object of identification or desire. Some of the bottled-coffee ads have starred a young white man urged on by a band or cheering section as he begins to climb the corporate ladder; others feature a young white woman whose drinking of a Frappuccino insulates her from the pressures of her workplace (often depicted as sexual: in the "Stacey" ad the protagonist is shown spurning the advances of a coworker, while the current ad does the reverse--infuses a desexualized workplace with romance). These are the people viewers are supposed to identify with (the young male striver) or desire (the woman in the current commerical variously described as "blonde chick" and "hot librarian" throughout cyberspace).

But not the Asian. Nor, for that matter, people of other races. The "racially balanced" cast, in practice, merely means creating a "colorful" background. Think again of the "Stacey" ad: the white female protagonist is followed around her office by a doo-wop group composed of four black men. So don't tell me the producers of these ads aren't thinking very, very carefully about how race signifies.

In looking at the Frappuccino commercial again--the first time I've seen it since my initial viewing--I have noticed one other detail: Just before he disappears, the Asian man is also drinking a Frappuccino. You've been warned.


pam said...

Nice articulation of the representation dilemma.

On another tack, I just watched the clip on Starbucks.com, and IMHO the producers made another grave miscalculation. As in, the Asian guy is actually way sexier than Michael Buble! Does anyone else see this, or is it just me?

Like, the Asian guy comes off as having more of a rugged energy, way more butch than Buble, who somehow winds up looking like a preteen pageant singer. I don't want to be unfair to Buble, who I know next to nothing about, but from I see in the commercial, they've really "younged" up his look in a not a very flattering way. Is this supposed to appeal to women? If so, junior-highschool boys with preppy demeanors all across America are in luck...

So if the intention is to depict the "drab" turning into the "sparky," the commercial winds up subverting itself.

This of course is my meta-observation outside of the scripted premise. And as usual, I realize that my perceptions are probably shared by only a minority of viewers.

Lee said...

I'm still stuck on the "so-called 'minorities'" bit. As though Asian-Americans really make up 70% of the U.S. population, but everyone's just too durn PC to admit it.

But this so-called producer's so-called dilemma actually reminds me a good Simpsons episode. A rich guy offers Homer a million dollars to "rent" Marge for the weekend, at which point Marge firmly says no. Homer's response: "I can't take his money. I can't print my own money. Make up your mind!"

Tim said...

Pam: I'm totally with you--the Asian guy is sexier. In fact, my train of thought on seeing the singer in the commercial was: this guy is so unappealing, he must be a celebrity.

I'm trying to imagine an alternate version of the commercial in which the Asian man is the romantic lead: what if, for example, the result of drinking the Frappuccino was that the Asian guy himself suddenly jumped up and burst into song.

The difficulty even I have imagining this should tell you something about the problem. It would seem ridiculous; it would be played for laughs. It doesn't "work," intuitively, in exactly the same way that changing the Asian man into a white singer does work; and it's these intuitions, held up to the light, that can be seen as stereotypes. The only Asian American man we're likely to see singing in a TV commercial in the near future is William Hung.

Thin Black Duke said...

"So-called minorities"!!!!!!!! WTF.

Thanks for an articulate and thoughtful response to a very troubling phenomenom.

GJPW said...

Ahh, the wonders of white privilege. (AKA, Can't those so-called minorities shut the fuck up already? Racism ended years ago! Oh...Juan, make sure to empty my trash tonight and vacuum the office floor.)

I don't expect to see an ounce of awareness from Starbucks any time soon.


Shin Yu said...

I'm picturing an alternative version of the commercial in which the actor gets to break out like John Cho in the fantasy scene in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle in which he is dressed in a Ricky Martin-ish suit and gets the non-Asian girl.

pam said...

a few assorted thoughts...

After the Hong Kong handover, there were a few Hollywood attempts to cast HK actors as romantic leads opposite non-Asian-American actresses (Chow Yun-Fat with Mira Sorvino, Jet Li with Aaliyah). These efforts were well-intentioned but for the most part clumsy, and fizzled in terms of chemistry and credibility factor. I found it interesting to note that Hollywood was willing to take a chance on such castings precisely because these actors were already megastars in Asia, and already considered sexy on the basis of their past films, many of which were watched and admired by American audiences. They enjoyed a transparency of masculinity that was totally beyond the reach of their far less famous Asian American actor counterparts. And producers were gambling on the public's willingness to accept this transparent masculinity in "translation."

Whereas Asian American actors always have the first-level burden of convincing the public that they are credible, watchable, and relatable male subjects to begin with.

Come to think of it, even Jackie Chan requires a white male sidekick (Owen Wilson) to get the big box office hits and to make his own sexuality fathomable to the American public (in the form of a fraternal, buddy flick).

I'm thinking too of the one Asian American actor of my generation, John Cho, who has made incursions into the mainstream, principally through comedy. (Now I see someone else has just commented on the Whitecastle movie, and the scenario there is yeah... exactly to point!) I find it interesting to note that in indie Asian American cinema, John is considered "the sexy guy," while in mainstream media he's considered "the funny guy."

Gina said...

Okay first I will say , i really do not care for their coffee , secondly where do you decide that 70 % of Americans are asian ?

Shin Yu said...

Here's another thought...Keanu Reeves. But Keanu is WAY to classy for Starbuck's. Chrissakes, they don't even recycle!

Lee said...

Gina--As the one who said "70 percent of the US population"... that was my way of ridiculing the phrase "so-called minorities." And ridiculing people who cry political correctness at everything they don't understand. Not a claim of fact. Hope that was clear.

pam said...

Keanu! now he's just the kind of "so-called minority" the mainstream would feel comfy enough letting into the bedroom... but if he looked a little "too Asian", e.g., if he were Russell Wong, he'd still be swigging Frappuccino behind a screen wipe...

Jonathan said...

Ok, I've got a good commercial for you. A really hot looking Asian woman is driving down a dusty highway in a convertible. She stops at one of those grungy looking 1950s style gas stations and gets out of her car. In the dilapidated convenience store are overweight white truckers in baseball caps. She makes her way over and finds a frappacino in the cooler. She untwists the top of the frap and suddenly all the truckers morph into sleep Asian pop stars, as the soundtrack shifts from country to some hip dance track. Are you listening, Starbucks? I'm giving you this idea for free, since I know you read Tim's blog.

Jonathan said...

I meant "sleek" not "sleep."

Tim said...

Great concept, Jonathan. Let's pitch it to Starbucks and make a million bucks.

One question, though. Is it possible to imagine your version of the commercial with the Asian woman replaced by a white woman? Would that mean the same thing? What would it mean to see a white female protagonist replacing white men with Asian male objects of desire? Would that seem plausible? silly? subversive? fetishistic?

Tim said...

Oh, and re Keanu: does anyone who is not Asian even remember that Keanu's part Asian? Keanu's been able to become a megastar because to most (white) viewers his Asianness does not register--only, perhaps, as a slight frisson of difference, something slightly "exotic" or "off" about his looks that makes him all the more appealing without racializing him.

There's an essay by LeiLani Nishime in the new book East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture that actually tackles this subject. Although the essay overall isn't very satisfying, it does suggest that what is racially "off" about Keanu (the fact that he is "secretly" part Asian) gets displaced onto speculations about his sexuality (persistent rumors that he is gay).

Jonathan said...

It struck me that my commercial idea would only be used to market directly to Asians. I'm not sure what putting a white woman, or a Latina, or an Afiracan-American, into that role would do to it. I'm thinking they should make several versions so that the viewer never knows what to expect.

Mick said...

Last night I saw a Cingular wireless comercial that was all about a hip young skater-dude Asian-american guy looking very enthusiastic about their calling plans. I'm thinking after the Starbucks fiasco this could be going somewhere really great, but I watched it on mute so I can't be sure.

Anonymous said...

My god this comment window is small.

I disagree with your concept of the Asian man being inferior to the star roll. I have no evidence to support myself, but after reading your first post about the Starbucks issue, have watched attentively, encountering numerous commercials wherein the Asian was given a dominant, serious, and respectable role. But let’s put that aside.

Given the demographics of this country, it does not surprise me that the white man is the normative star for the television commercial. But if you wish to confront the advertiser's notion of what should or should not be placed on TV, I think you should take a different approach. It is, after all, an issue of why the Asian man is, according to the demands of your assessment, not capable of creating the most sales. And if we assume the marketers are successfully doing their job, which, given Starbucks' success, they seem to be, then your suggested altering of corporate marketing will be placed in a position of dissonance against expert advertisement opinion. Unless I’ve mistakenly presumed your advertising skills are less than stellar, then we could assume that an advertisement employing your advice would be statistically less helpful to sales than that of an expert. As such, in the end your call for the Asian star will do nothing but perpetuate the problem by allowing other companies, which have not adopted your advertising strategy, to improve their share of the market. I think you see where I'm going. If you want to do something about this issue, why not attempt to make the Asian man more marketable (i.e., confront the ideological problem which places minorities at the bottom of the barrel, why not create a cache of examples and write a letter or a thesis or a column? I see you doing nothing but pointing fingers and asking companies to create less successful advertising campaigns. You live in America, good luck with that.).

Of course I have neglected the concept of advertiser responsibility, which I agree is an important ethos to any decent progressive, but I disagree with your notion that the Asian man is being insidiously debased and furthermore contend that advertisers are generally doing a great job in mimicking this country’s many ethnicities. I feel the lens that would give the ‘notion of the Asian man being debased’ appreciation is myopic and, if even somewhat true, would only be attackable by demotic means, viz, increasing awareness of the issue. (Once again, not by harming one company so that another can take its place.). Essays could be written. This is my most basic idea.

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Reality said...

OMG. CRY about everything! Just be glad they put an Asian in the commercial. Even when a company tries to represent a minority group, they still get slammed. The director had an idea and then filled the casting spaces. I am sure the original plans for the commercial did not specifically state "turn some non-sexy Asian guy into the white lead singer." Who cares what Michael Buble looks like, it was his voice that was being showcased. And as far as Asians making up 70% of the US popluation, leave Chinatown sometime! Most states have a majority of white people with blacks coming in very close so redo the math Einstein.