Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity

Also by Marilyn Halter
Between Race and Ethnicity, New Migrants in the Marketplace

Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity

Marilyn Halter
Schocken Books New York

Acknowledgments ix
One Longings and Belongings: An Introduction 3
Two From Community to Commodity: The Color of Money 25
Three The New Ethnic Marketing Experts 48
Four The Romance of Ethnicity 78
Five Ethnic by Design: Marketing to a “New America” 104
Six A Rainbow Coalition of Consumers 138
Seven Recipe for Multiethnicity: The Mestizo Makeover 170
Conclusion 192
Appendix A: Note on Terminology 199
Notes 203
Bibliography 216
Index 226
Illustration Credits 243


Longings and Belongings: An Introduction

My first real faculty position after returning to graduate school to finish my Ph.D. in the mid-1980s was a year-long stint in the history department at Boston College, where I filled in for two professors on leave, teaching various Americanist courses, including the hugely popular HI 101, “America in the 1960s.” Three-hundred-plus students thronged the lecture hall; many more who had not preregistered for the class had to be turned away, including, rumor had it, the late Robert Kennedy’s youngest offspring. As most other course offerings focused on the turbulent ’60s, my class covered the social movements of the decade thoroughly, not just the grass-roots activity but the pivotal legislative acts, notably, of course, Civil Rights in 1964 and Voting Rights in 1965, which marked the government’s endorsement of initiatives that would reshape the nation’s social polity and civic culture for years to come. Yet what I had overlooked completely in my teaching of the explosive events of the period, indeed, what was absent from both the scholarly and popular texts at the time, was any mention whatsoever of what could arguably be called the most transformative measure of all in that decade of upheaval—the quiet passage of the Immigration Reform bill in 1965 ending preferential quotas for Europeans. Here was legislation that, in the years since its approval, has led to kaleidoscopic demographic change and to so complete a shake-up of the country’s racial and ethnic composition that by 2050, when today’s preschoolers will have reached middle age, there will be no white majority; every American will belong to a minority group.

The other significant legacies of the 1960s related to the contours of American ethnic identities today (and that did make it into my syllabus) were the movements by traditionally oppressed groups for recognition and self-determination within the wider culture, spearheaded by black nationalism and quickly followed by the American Indian Movement and the stirrings of a new Chicano militancy. These largely political initiatives were embellished by momentous cultural transformations that included unearthing buried roots and occluded histories as well as celebrating distinctive heritages. Moreover, the worldview of the ’60s counterculture and of its New Left politics legitimized cultural hybridity, since much of it was based on rebellion against the previous decade’s penchant for humdrum conformity. The colorless “organization man” gave way to the colorful nonconformist whose individuality could readily be expressed in ethnic terms. Indeed, ’60s radical Tom Hayden, founding member of Students for a Democratic Society and an author of the organization’s Port Huron Statement, a visionary document articulating the connections between the personal life of individuals and the politics of nations, went on to become not only a California state senator but also a proponent of Irish pride, who today lectures widely on the history and psychology of the culture that is his heritage.

By the mid-1970s, initially driven by a backlash against minority group movements for racial power, white descendants of immigrants who had arrived primarily from southern and eastern Europe during the sweeping second wave in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and who had also faced discrimination from the native population at the time, began to assert their own brand of ethnic pride. At first construed largely as a defense against the perceived threats of black power and the encroachment of African Americans into white ethnic neighborhoods, the ethnic resurgence ultimately went beyond such narrow aims to encompass a cultural alternative to assimilation and a political alternative to individualism for both black and white ethnics.

Thus, these early, often reactive impulses to reclaim roots had evolved by the century’s end into a full-blown and multifaceted ethnic revival across a broad spectrum of the population that carries a much more benign rhetoric of rainbows and salad bowls to explain the dynamics of what historian David Hollinger has labeled America’s communities of descent.1 After decades in which assimilation was the leading model for the incorporation of diverse populations, cultural pluralism emerged to take its place as the reigning paradigm. When Congress passed the Ethnic Heritage Act in 1974 to support the funding of initiatives that promote the distinctive cultures and histories of the nation’s ethnic populations, it was clear that this philosophy had taken hold at even the highest levels of government. The so-called roots phenomenon accounts for such developments as the growth of ethnic celebrations, a zeal for genealogy, increased travel to ancestral homelands, and greater interest in ethnic artifacts, cuisine, music, literature, and, of course, language.

One of the strongest influences on this vibrant cultural fluorescence has been the evolution of modern consumer capitalism. By the early 1970s, change was permeating the cultural front and the parameters of the American marketplace were shifting quite dramatically. After reaching its peak as the decade began, mass marketing was on the wane in many sectors of the economy. Parity in the production and technology of consumer goods had, for the most part, been achieved, so that customers could no longer differentiate between the quality of value and services rendered by Westinghouse versus Kenmorc washing machines. Tide versus Cheer detergent, or even between the Coke or Pepsi that might spill on the clothes that ended up in the laundry basket. Companies needed to find new ways to hook consumers on their particular brands and to make customers loyal in an increasingly competitive and saturated marketplace.

Corporate industry leaders began taking a different tack, turning away from mass advertising campaigns to concentrate on segmented marketing approaches. One of the most successful of the segmenting strategies has been to target specific ethnic constituencies. Yuri Radzievsky, founder of YAR Communications, a multicultural brand management firm that develops print and broadcast advertising for markets both in the United States and abroad, explained it this way:

There aren’t any more products so revolutionary that just by reciting a spec sheet, you win the marketplace. The sell today is an emotional sell. The products are coming closer and closer to each other. When you pick up this phone and you hear a dial tone, can you say whether it’s AT&T, MCI, Sprint or anybody else? So how do you sell that service where there is so little differentiation in quality and product benefits? In order to reach the marketplace’s pockets, you have to reach their minds and hearts first. How do you do it with one advertising fits all? You need to get on the home turf of that person. What’s home turf? It’s culture. We position our agency specializing in multicultural brand management.2

The demassification of American cultural identity during the last three decades has been reflected, even paralleled, in the ways that the business world has reshaped its own marketing tactics. The salience of ideas about diversity and differentiation pertains whether applied to people or to products. In the introduction to one of the new textbooks for business school students on the subject of ethnic marketing, the author points to this very confluence of academic concern with multiculturalism and the interests of the business sector when she writes, “Looking at advertising from the standpoint of ethnic audiences offers a chance to teach simultaneously segmentation, racial sensitivity, good copywriting technique, research, strategy, management, psychology, and consumer behavior.3

This fascinating and changing relationship between ethnic identity formation and consumer culture as it evolved across the American landscape during the second half of the twentieth century will be explored in the following pages. Whereas at one time the relationship between human beings and material objects resulted in identities that were acquired with the possessions one inherited, in modern times, people most often construct their own identities and define others through the commodities they purchase. With the rise of individualism and the evolution of mass consumerism objects become an extension of the self, and this has come to include one’s ethnic identification as well, a new brand of cultural baggage. Through the consumption of ethnic goods and services, immigrants and their descendants modify and signal ethnic identities in social settings no longer sharply organized around ethnic group boundaries and the migration experience. Earlier generations of ethnic Americans typically wanted to assimilate into the mainstream as rapidly as possible, but they found themselves defining themselves and being defined by the larger society according to their compatriot community affiliations and the constraints of ghetto life. They were surrounded by definitive and distinguishing ethnic group markers, most notably language, but also the still vibrant cuisines, music, literature, and religious practices of their native lands. They felt tied to neighborhoods, parishes, local politics, and an active network of voluntary organizations. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, the institutional structures of America’s traditional, ethnic enclaves have experienced significant erosion. Thus, today, the flux inherent in such an individualistic society—still holding within it large numbers of diverse religious, racial, and nationality groups—has led people to reflect and create the ethnic components of their identity through the process of acquisition instead. Ethnicity is increasingly manifest through self-conscious consumption of goods and services and, at the same time, these commodities assist in negotiating and enforcing identity differences. As the authors of a study exploring the favorite possessions of Asian Indians concluded, “While an Indian home is considered rich if it is filled with people, an American home is considered rich if it is filled with things, and especially things regarded as expressing individual identity.”4 Without consumer goods, certain acts of self-definition in this culture would be impossible. Shopping for an ethnic identity has become big business for contemporary consumer society.

Novelty is, perhaps, the most significant characteristic of modern consumer capitalism. As Daniel Boorstin has written, “We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night.”5 Back in the 1820s, in the budding years of St. Valentine’s Day celebrations in the United States, printers promoted “valentine writers,” chapbooks of model verse that could then be copied onto handmade cards, by calling the books “new” and “original,” even when the volumes themselves were cribbed word for word from British versions. By the late nineteenth century, reverence for the new and the improved, for being in vogue and in season, had become so intrinsic to the development of mass commercial culture that fashion, style, and innovation became the central features of the evolving American marketplace. Even though corporate culture is in the business of perpetually manufacturing desires for the new and fashionable, consumers still resist giving themselves over completely to ceaseless innovation. They seek continuity and familiarity as well. Thus, they will buy the very latest in products, services, and technologies to re-create an old-fashioned and bygone world, and marketers respond by designing goods that might satisfy this craving for novelty without risk.6 Indeed, most consumers today see absolutely no discrepancy in wanting what is both classic and fresh, timeless and ephemeral. They seek and expect to find what is essentially contradictory—the original recipe that is somehow “new and improved.”

One of the latest innovations to galvanize consumers and hold out the promise of that magical potion that mixes the security of the old with the excitement of the new is a broad-based appeal to our romantic search for an ethnic identity. Advertising trends demonstrate that ethnicity is highly combustible, fueling free enterprise and molding our consumer patterns. The days when mainstream America meant Norman Rockwell, Ozzie and Harriet, and meat-and-potatocs are gone. There’s a new, evolving, and complicated ethnic mainstream for which salsa has become a staple (indeed, since 1991 salsa has outsold ketchup as the top-ranking condiment of choice in the United States), Szcchwan beef has replaced the standard hamburger, and movie actresses with “classic” Anglo-Saxon features are routinely having plastic surgery to embellish and fill out their now too-thin lips.

Much has changed in the almost thirty years since Margaret Mead pronounced that “Being American is a matter of abstention from foreign ways, foreign food, foreign ideas, foreign accents,”7 Although cultivating a foreign accent may not yet be a sign of true Americanness, relearning one’s ancestral tongue, eating ethnic cuisine, displaying ethnic artifacts, fostering a hyphenated identity, and even reverse name-changes (back to the old-country original) have become the American way. What some viewed as a passing fad of the 1970s has only intensified. This renaissance is a form of voluntary ethnicity that has made any conflict between identifying oneself as American and affirming one’s foreign heritage disappear. Indeed, as sociologist Robert Wood has pointed out, “In an age that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism, it has become almost a civic duty to have an ethnicity as well as to appreciate that of others.’”8

In a society in which individualism is so highly valued, this type of “convenience” or “portable” ethnicity works very well. Third-and fourth-generation upwardly mobile ethnics are now secure enough to proclaim their distinctiveness without risk of it becoming a hindrance to achieving middle-class respectability. In fact, it can be a plus in the workplace as a way not only of establishing connections among co-ethnics but also of relating to those of cultural backgrounds different from one’s own.9 Such flexibility of identification is also eminently suitable in a society with increasing rates of intermarriage.

New studies of the children, grandchildren, and the greatgrandchildren of immigrants question the extent to which ethnicity is a factor in their identity formation after three or four generations in this country.10 To the surprise of many, the results have shattered the assumption that over time and with greater structural integration, ethnicity would simply disappear. Ethnic identification persists and the research demonstrates that higher sociocconomic status and increased educational levels have strengthened rather than weakened it.11 These findings run directly counter to the earlier assertions that movement up the social ladder is an assimilating force.

Ethnicity has typically been associated with the lifestyle of the lower classes.12 However, increasingly, explicit ethnic identification has become an indicator of economic success and integration. In her study of Puerto Ricans in the United States, Clara Rodriguez found that those who had achieved a modicum of success tended to maintain a strong Puerto Rican or Hispanic identification. Similarly, in her survey of Americans of Armenian descent in metropolitan New York and New Jersey, Anny Bakalian concluded that the upwardly mobile respondents were just as likely to demonstrate public pride in their heritage as others in the population and that there was absolutely no stigma attached to doing so.13 What used to be a liability has now become an asset, a luxury of assimilation. The requirement of optional or part-time ethnicity is a prior sense of belonging enough to be able to freely distinguish oneself from mass society on the basis of cultural difference. Getting ahead financially and getting back to one’s cultural roots are perfectly compatible personal aspirations in America today.

This formula provided the rationale for the coffee-table magazine Attenzione, first published in 1979, in the flush of the revival of white ethnicity. The publishers hoped “to make hundreds of thousands of Italian-Americans prouder than ever of their heritage.” Their strategy was to present articles reflective of upper middle-class tastes, including upscale renditions of the food that is so central to Italian ethnicity overall as well as the latest in fashion and home furnishings from Italian designers and glossy photo-essays depicting Italian Renaissance art. Attenzione also profiled successful Italian-Americans who had not lost their strong sense of ethnic identity. The magazine carried advertisements for classic high-status items—sports cars, luxury cruises, ski vacations—catering to an increasingly numerous, upwardly mobile but still ethnically oriented readership.14

Indeed, the 1990 US. Census indicated that among whites, a complete reversal has occurred in the relationship of ethnic identification to social class. Those of European descent who answered the question about ancestry on the census forms with “American” rather than a specific ethnic heritage had higher rates of poverty and lower levels of education than those who listed their ethnic designation. For example, of those who wrote “American,” only 10 percent had college degrees, compared to 25 percent of those who reported a specific ancestry. Similar differentials were found with poverty rates. Lawrence Fuchs, formerly the vice-chairman of the US. Commission on Immigration Reform, explained the dynamic in this way: “Americans who cannot remember whether their ancestry was Scotch or Scotch-Irish or Irish or English . . . tend to live in areas of rural poverty. They are sure about their American identity and uncertain about their particular ancestral origins. Compared to the descendants of more recent immigrants—Italian Americans, Polish Americans, etc.—they tend to be poor.”15 Given this trend, it is not surprising that corporate America would employ ethnicity as a marketing tool directed at a sector, of society with definitive buying power—middle-class, ethnic-identified,consumers.

Warren Belasco’s research on the development of ethnic fast food confirms this pattern, demonstrating that the revivalists tend to be affluent and well educated. Moreover, marketing experts have predicted a growing desire among the prosperous middle class for products that could suggest more permanence or stability in their lives. Belasco cites both oak furniture and ethnic foods as examples of consumer goods that convey a sense of continuity and rootedness. He points out that oftentimes ethnic eating revolves around ritual and ceremony, activities that further the semblance of community among those overwhelmed by .the displacement and transitory nature of modernity.16

It could simply be stated that cultural commodification is inherent in the capitalist system, an inevitable outcome of the workings of the marketplace. However, the relationship of ethnic identity to commercial endeavors turns out to be much more complicated and, thus, far more interesting to dissect. Certainly for many, the ethnic revival represents the search for recognizable or familiar points of reference in a cold, impersonal, and fragmented world. Furthermore, these people see direct links between the modern life of material abundance and a perception of spiritual impoverishment. In this way, ethnic identities are continually being reinvented to fulfill our longing to feel anchored to a secure, harmonious, and localized past, although we are living amid the vast and chaotic landscapes of consumption that characterize the present.

Despite the voluminous attention paid to the permutations of American identity in the twentieth century, commentators have shied away from exploring the underlying economic issues involved. The sensibilities surrounding the romance of ethnicity—the nostalgia—do not readily invite an analysis that might be equated with what are often viewed as the crasser elements of such behavior. Most cultural critics paint a worst-case scenario of vulgar market forces co-opting all individual creative expression. Moreover, many still hold to a bias in favor of production, whereby an individual’s occupation is the defining element of social identity, leaving no room for consumer behavior as a significant factor in identity formation. Thus, the story of the rise of a mass consumer society from the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth becomes a tale of continuous declension from the virtues of a producer-oriented society, in which individuals had some measure of control over their own lives, to one in which multinational corporations dictate its contours.

The Victorian values of saving over spending, frugality over acquisitiveness, and prudence over indulgence meant that engagement in the marketplace signified degenerative impulses.17 The barely disguised moralistic critique of modern consumerist practice as necessarily self-indulgent, superficial, and excessive, along with the focus on individuals as workers only, has hampered sound research about an immensely important sphere of human behavior. A schism exists between the business people who view consumerism as constructive to American character and society and the academics who see it as detrimental. Either way consumerism has become so completely woven into American life that it is not necessary to judge its effects to give the phenomenon thoughtful attention.

Initially, if the ethnic revival was assessed at all in terms of its relationship to the business world, it was thought of as representing a strike against corporate culture. This was largely a grass-roots movement discontented with the rapid pace and high turnover of mass consumption, seeking instead more constant and meaningful connections to people and things. Representing some of the same sensibilities of the 1970s counterculture, those who turned back to their roots were not that different from their communal living, environmentalist back-to-nature counterparts. New ethnics, in their search for authentic homeland foods and the sense of community associated with it, would seek out local immigrant businesses involved in small-scale food production and retailing rather than consuming the products of corporate giants.

However, it has become clear that commercial goods produced at both the corporate and small-scale levels are increasingly being consumed by Americans as a form of ethnic expression. Similarly, ethnic festivals, commemorative events, museum and popular culture offerings, retreats, and courses of study have provided a temporary sense of community that, in an intensive and optional way, gratifies such longings for meaningful interpersonal contact. More and more, these consumer products and services are replacing traditional neighborhood and community affiliations as the connective tissue of postmodern life.

My research suggests that although the impetus to reclaim roots often stems from disdain for commercial interests, paradoxically, consumers look to the marketplace to revive and reidentify with ethnic values. Though a crucial component of the rationale for the creation of ethnic pride groups and related culture-specific practices may be to protest against the ills of consumer society, the new ethnics demonstrate that they are nonetheless deeply tied to consumerist practices. In effect, the market serves to foster greater awareness of ethnic identity, offers immediate possibilities for cultural participation, and can even act as an agent of change in that process. Thus, consumerism simultaneously disrupts and promotes ethnic community and can be both subversive and hegemonic. Commercialism may indeed dissipate tradition, community, and meaning, but it can also enhance and reinforce such identifications.

Consider the case of Cajun identity, the heritage of those French-speaking descendants of Acadians who had settled along the chilly Bay of Fundy in the early seventeenth century and who, by the late eighteenth century, had been exiled south to the semitropical Louisiana bayou country. After more than two centuries of adaptation to American society, the contemporary Louisiana Cajun community had lost many of its distinctive cultural features. But in the mid-1970s a steady stream of tourists began to arrive in the area looking for an “authentic” Cajun experience. They came especially from Francophone regions such as Quebec, France, and Belgium, inspiring the largely assimilated local population to probe its own cultural uniqueness. Indeed, many of the Francophone tourists evinced a stronger interest in Cajun culture than natives did. Thanks to these tourists, Cajun identity was reawakened in Louisiana. A full-fledged cultural revival has occurred, and visitors can now find restaurants serving traditional and reinvented Cajun fare, ethnic festivals featuring Cajun music, exhibits that carefully trace the history of migration and settlement, and a renewed attention to distinctive language use. Given how sweeping the ethnic renaissance has been nationally over the last two decades, Louisiana Cajuns might eventually have moved in this direction on their own initiative, but, in fact, tourism definitely played a significant part in accelerating the renewal of ethnic consciousness.18

The usual assumption is that the sheer scale of mass consumption means that the products themselves will necessarily be uniform and undifferentiated. Yet both segmented marketing strategies on the corporate level and more localized ethnic ventures that may even stem from grass-roots movements have generated a much more diverse and varied array of choices for the consumer than is typically acknowledged.19 Even as the marketplace itself becomes increasingly globalized and the more superficial aspects of commercialism converge, actual consumer practice remains embedded in local codes of behavior that are culturally defined within particular social contexts. In Hawaii, an evolving sense of both native culture and local identity has made goods that convey a distinctive regional stamp extremely popular. Apparel with slogans proclaiming ethnic pride and artifacts with designs that vividly represent the particular ethnic mix of the local population were initially adopted primarily by the residents, but it wasn’t long before vacationers from the mainland and from all over the world were purchasing this merchandise as well.20 In this way, consumers can become part of a global culture and a local community in tandem.

Another example of consumer culture contributing to the rein-vention of ethnicity is the way certain national holidays become far more important in the American context than in their native lands, largely because of corporate sponsorship. Cinco de Mayo, the commemoration of the May 5,1862, Mexican victory over an occupying French army is hardly celebrated in Mexico, but it has become a widely recognized holiday in the United States in recent years. The US. Postal Service even issued a Cinco de Mayo stamp in 1998. During the month of April that year a full-page advertisement for Pace brand salsa and picante con queso served with Coca-Cola appeared with one line of text: “Create a Cinco de Mayo Party.” Significantly, the ad ran in a national circular for a general audience with no further commentary—the creators assumed that consumers everywhere would know what a Cinco de Mayo party was.

St. Patrick’s Day has become so popular in certain parts of the country that it is being extended far beyond March 17, much the way the Christmas season has become longer and longer. Early in March, the Home Shopping network holds a 24-hour all-Irish merchandise event. A waitress at a New York pub, recently arrived from Ireland herself, griped about the long hours and exaggerated Irish pride required of her in the days leading up to March 17, “The boss was packing the place all week with the Tender Loving Care dinners. Old people from all over Long Island were bused in, everyone wearing green. We did the serving and had to mouth along to all the Irish songs. The boss made a packet out of it.” St. Patrick’s celebrations now start in February and carry right through March. In February 1997 the Boston Irish Reporter announced a gala Irish Heritage Day event scheduled for March 9 explaining, “With about 40 million Americans claiming some form of Irish heritage, it’s understandable that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have extended to an entire month in many places. And Boston is no exception.”21

Since the end of World War II, Chanukah, a relatively minor festival in the Jewish ritual calendar, commemorating the upset victory in 165 B.C. of a small band of Jews over the Greek army, and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, has steadily become more and more commercialized in the United States. Indeed, one commentator, as early as 1950, was already chiding that the December holiday falling so close to Christmas had become a “major competitive winter sport.” Also known as the Festival of Lights, Chanukah is celebrated for eight days and candles are lit each evening in a candelabra called a menorah. By 1998, amid all the excess of Chanukah-themed gifts and decorations, the Disney company was offering no fewer than five different Mickey Mouse menorah designs and three Winnie the Poohs, while shoppers could find Chanukah travel mugs at Starbucks shops around the country.22

The African-American festival of Kwanzaa, celebrated for a week from the day after Christmas to New Year’s Day, is an invention of the 1960s Black Pride movement that illustrates well the complex and problematical relationship of ethnic celebration to consumerism. Inspired initially by the desire to bring distinctive season’s greetings to African Americans during the European-based December holidays, it was also conceived as an alternative to the excessive and overwhelming commercial spree that increasingly marks this time of year. Over the years, however, commemoration of Kwanzaa has also succumbed to marketplace influences, to the dismay of some of its founding figures, but to the simultaneous delight of those artists and entrepreneurs who benefit from the sale of specially designed gift items, crafts, toys, greeting cards, clothing, and music with putative African motifs. At a recent Kwanzaa Expo held in New York City, more than three hundred exhibitors showed their wares to an eager crowd of holiday shoppers, a scene that is replicated on a smaller scale at local festivals throughout the country.23

Exalting a particular culture and making money while doing it are not necessarily antithetical. Naturally, the bottom line is increasing sales, and in these times one of the primary strategies to accomplish this goal is to broaden the consumer base by finding new audiences. Yet the way this dynamic plays out is not simply that commercial forces end up necessarily controlling the cultural realm, nor can they be said to automatically erode authentic expression. Rather the relationship is a much more dialectical give-and-take between culture and commerce. People interested in showcasing their own culture can draw on corporate funding to make that happen and, in many cases, are able to have definitive input into the process as well. There is a broad gray area between the two extremes: on one side, authentic cultural purity and, on the other, cultural expression that has been so commercialized that it has been robbed of any distinctive meaning.

The search for authenticity is very much related to nostalgia for an idealized and fixed point in time when folk culture was supposedly untouched by the corruption that is automatically associated with commercial development. Hence, the more artificiality, anonymity, and uncertainty apparent in a postmodern world, the more driven are the quests for authentic experiences and the more people long to feel connected to localized traditions seeking out the timeless and true. Studies of contemporary tourism report a similar search for “the real thing.” Increasingly, tourists want their travel agents to find sites to visit that offer fine weather and an authentic cultural encounter.

In the tourist-dependent economy of Hawaii, hotel and Visitors Bureau personnel now routinely receive cultural training in “Hawaiian” values. The demand to experience the local “aloha spirit,” along with some fun in the sun, is so great that the state government has indulged the grass-roots Hawaiian movement for self-determination, despite its militant political challenges to the status quo; officials realize that they need to foster such expressions of authenticity to sustain touristic appeal. Funding has been provided for Hawaiian Studies programs, local craft initiatives, and training workshops in indigenous arts. The transformation of the competitive hula dance into a specialized art form in recent years is an example of how such initiatives can simultaneously symbolize Hawaiian pride and sovereignty and satisfy tourist desires to capture on film an authentic experience in paradise. Such an approach has conferred legitimacy on certain pro-Hawaiian demands, as can be seen in the strident concern for native burial grounds, which forced the government to prohibit hotel developers from building over them.24

Whether as tourists or as long-term excavators of their ethnic roots, people are pursuing experiences that ring true, feel untainted, and taste authentic. As Jennifer Gates has demonstrated in her study of ethnic tourism in Manhattan, the quest for authenticity can extend even to evaluating entire neighborhoods on this basis.25 Although commercialism stands as the archenemy of cultural purity, corporate interests have nonetheless begun vying with one another to claim their particular output as the most authentic in the marketplace. Not surprisingly, when market forces are at play, authenticity itself becomes a hot commodity. Companies are already under pressure to become culturally sensitive to remain competitive, and when they can combine pitches to wider multicultural markets with successful cultivation of the authentic, they are likely to see good outcomes.

As a result, concern with authenticity figures prominently in the ethnic marketing literature. Typical is this guidance offered in the trade journal Progressive Grocer: “Latinos arc looking for products that are authentic and they have a more rigorous standard for product quality. The non-Latino group is looking for ‘new tastes,’ but is still not as knowledgeable about product use, preparation and taste.” Or when the director of the International Food Distributors Association admonishes supermarket planners to keep up with the trend: “If these people can’t get what they want from the supermarket, they’ll buy it at a restaurant. Supermarkets have been beaten to the punch. The real shift is to a more authentic cuisine. More people arc demanding it, and I don’t think grocery stores are ready for that at all.” One Los Angeles restaurant with a panethnic menu simply calls itself The Authentic Cafe. New record labels that specialize in popular and world music reflect the desires of their audiences for authentically primal listening experiences, with names such as Roots Records, Real World, City of Tribes, Original Music, and Redwood Cultural Work. The YAR Communications agency underlines the critical value of cultural authenticity by casting the approach in military terms, calling it a “weapon” and “among the most potent forces in today’s marketing arsenal.”26

When individuals purchase something considered representative of a culture, whether buying a piece of their own heritage or branching out to expose themselves to another’s, they expect a certain level of legitimacy. Yet determinations of authenticity are extremely arbitrary, and which items are and are not considered genuine expressions of ethnic identity is based on highly subjective criteria. In his 1975 essay “Travels in Hyperreality,” Umberto Eco exposes such contradictions when he goes in search “of instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.”27 The tourists who visit Hawaii and bring home the requisite “aloha” shirt or maybe even a colorful muumuu as souvenirs of their true experience of local culture are unlikely to realize that these “authentic” items were probably made in Taiwan or mainland China.

Furthermore, notions of authenticity arc closely intertwined with ideas about social class. There is a tendency to romanticize working-class communal sensibilities, especially the dynamics of lower-class racial and ethnic groups.28 The simple assumption is that those who are working-class arc more genuinely ethnic. Hence when middle-class people proclaim ethnic pride, their legitimacy often comes into question. They are not the true representatives of their culture but rather synthetic copies of their lower-class counterparts who are the real ethnics of their group. Are the third-generation Irish-American banker and his attorney wife living in a Boston suburb, who are active members of the Irish Cultural Centre, who make regular excursions to Ireland, and whose two daughters take step-dancing classes any less bona fide than their third-generation Irish-American counterparts residing in Southie not far from where they grew up, where he’s a factory worker who likes to spend his free hours at Sully’s Bar, she’s a nurse active in her parish, and all six of their children attended Catholic schools?

What, then, makes for an authentic ethnic identification? Is it the intent, the function, the history, the purity of representation? Some cases are clear-cut. Cultural initiatives consciously designed to resist commercial intrusions are the most likely to be vigilant about upholding standards of purity. The National Indigenous Festival in Puerto Rico is a good example. The event celebrates the legacy of Taino contributions to Puerto Rican culture and has as its centerpiece an elaborate pageant with the crowning of an Indigenous Queen. The winner is chosen largely on the basis of the purity of her costume, which, according to strictly imposed guidelines, can be made only from natural materials gathered locally: bark, feathers, seeds, or corn. The use of anything synthetic, such as glue or plastic, immediately disqualifies the candidate. Although the festival and pageant are supported jointly by government and business—mostly local, though at one point in its history, Winston cigarettes was a sponsor—commercial backers are not allowed to advertise or in any way to detract from the goal of delivering a supposedly unadulterated cultural experience. As a by-product, the usually sagging local economy does get an annual tourist boost, but the celebration itself maintains its aura of authenticity and purity of expression. Ironically, of course, even holding an event like this, reminiscent of a competitive beauty pageant, is already a marker of assimilation into a modern consumer ethic.29

By contrast, another Puerto Rican festival, the Bacardi Folk Arts Fair, offers a fascinating example of a cultural activity that also adheres to rigorous standards of authenticity, perhaps even more stringent than its nonprofit counterparts, but which has its origins solely in the corporate sector. The event was initially part of a campaign to reshape the image of Bacardi rum from a Cuban to a Puerto Rican product. Bacardi’s corporate publicity team worked closely with the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP), the official government agency charged with regulating the parameters of what constitutes Puerto Ricanness. Thus, the Bacardi Fair accepted only those artisans who were registered with the ICP, and all the exhibits had to pass its criteria of cultural purity. The festival soon became known as a high-quality event, one that was not tainted by commercialism.

The overall promotion was so successful that Bacardi expanded its market share on the island fifteenfold, from 3 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent by the 1990s. At the same time, the merchandise itself has become so closely associated with a local legacy of production by traditional Puerto Rican artisans that the underlying economic motives for creating the Folk Arts Fair in the first place have been completely overshadowed by the event’s reputation as being a purely cultural celebration that preserves exacting standards of authenticity. Furthermore, the festivities have proved so lucrative for the artists and artisans themselves that unofficial cultural vendors who are not subject to Bacardi or ICP qualifications began setting up shop outside the actual fairgrounds to pick up the spillover. Hence, the irony that specifications of authenticity are rigorously imposed by the corporate entity, Bacardi, while its grass-roots counterparts just outside the official festival walls are free to present their own individualized renditions of the meaning of Puerto Ricanness.30

Controversy about the efficacy of ethnic identities that are voluntary or optional also informs this discussion. Even those who recognize that ethnicity still matters are likely to assert that it has been steadily eroding into a purely symbolic form that lacks substance and real meaning. Nonetheless, evidence abounds to indicate that despite commercialization, much of this behavior can still uphold authentic, if ambiguous, ethnic identities. Events such as festivals with rows of vendors, organized tours to visit the homeland, fund-raising projects to sponsor ethnic programs in universities, and museums dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of ethnic history and culture all benefit from a highly evolved consumer society, even though, oftentimes, the motivation to re-create such ties is in reaction to an overly consumer-oriented culture. The values, interests, and activities of the new consumption classes in relation to this more situational and transitory ethnicity simultaneously gratify both spiritual and instrumental aims. As the president of the National Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (Hillel) explained, “If there is any culture that this generation is familiar with, it’s the consumer culture. . . . They know how to shop. Their cultural place is not the town square, it’s the mall—with all of both the superficiality and the abundance that that creates and it is here that they are looking to be consumers of a life that makes sense.”31

Last March, one of my research assistants, Gini Laffey, was walking a dog on an Oregon beach when a man in his fifties approached, also with a dog, and as the two pets sniffed each other, he and Gini began a conversation. He was unremarkable in appearance, of medium build, dressed in casual L.L. Bean—type attire, and with a pleasant enough face, except that he had a fairly good-sized tattoo in an abstract design etched into the skin on one of his cheeks. Perhaps because of the contrast between the bold placement of body art and the man’s otherwise understated style, Gini couldn’t help wondering about it as they chatted. She found herself getting more and more curious until finally, she just came right out and asked him about his facial stamp. He responded eagerly, even thanking her for posing the question, because it gave him the chance to speak about the subject that he said most animated him in life.

He went on to explain excitedly that he was a sixth-generation Irish-American and that he and two of his brothers had decided they wanted to find a way to signal and celebrate their Celtic heritage. He created the actual design, a symbol that, according to Gini, who is also Irish-American, did not appear to have particularly Irish characteristics. The three siblings had agreed to get the same tattoo, but he was the only one to choose to have it burned into his face. When Gini asked, “You mean, like a coat of arms?” He agreed that, yes, that was how he thought of it. At first she had speculated that perhaps he was a Maori, coming from a culture that has a tradition of facial tattoos, or an American Indian, but she never expected that this literal in-your-face statement of cultural identity would turn out to be representative of a (much removed) Irishness and that the man sporting it was actually a member of Gini’s own tribe.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the extent to which the ethnic revival has permeated our culture than hearing the renowned baby and child care expert Dr. T. Berry Brazelton proclaim: “Every baby should get to know their heritage.” In the fundamentals of end-of-the-century American child-rearing, roots training comes even before potty training. Not surprisingly, the mainstream Gerber corporation has followed with a new line of baby foods called Gerber Tropicals designed for Hispanic families. In their advertising, however, it is clear that the company has broader aims. Not content to corner the Latino market, it is touting the sixteen different varieties, such as mangoes, papayas, and beans and rice, for their tasty and nutritional appeal to babies of all ethnic backgrounds.

At times, the commodification of culture goes to such extremes that the result can be ludicrous, as in the case of a California-based company that sells a dog biscuit shaped like a dreidel, the four-sided top spun in the game traditionally played as part of the Jewish celebration of Chanukah. Whether shopping for a brand-name trinket or a brand-new identity (or even literally branding oneself with that identity), the creative quest for ethnic particularity is a driving passion in today’s America that the nation’s market economy embraces with an equally supple ardor.


The New Ethnic Marketing Experts

The fluctuating demographic trends in the United States over the last three decades have inspired the initiation of entirely new kinds of businesses and services created to reach a culturally diverse consumer base. The increasingly fragmented market not only calls for advertising campaigns tailored to specific groups but also requires a determination of which media are most effective in such initiatives. More and more, consumers themselves are expressing culturally distinctive desires, needs, and wants in their shopping habits, and these demands as well as patterns of product loyalty prompted consulting, research, and communications firms to begin specializing in multiethnic niche marketing. Some cater to specific ethnic groups such as the California-based Hispanic Market Connections (HMC) or the even more narrowly focused Talkline Communications Network, an agency in the business of reaching Jewish consumers with the amusing motto “It takes more than gefilte fish to reel in the Jewish market.” Others have a broader scope and provide expert population and zip code breakdowns nationwide. When such agencies do specialize, they usually focus on one of the primary “New American” umbrella groups: Hispanics, Asians, or African Americans. Still another approach is that of Muse Cordero Chen & Partners (MCC&P), which seeks to design promotions that find a “zone of commonality” that centers on similarities rather than differences. Instead of the traditional monoethnic message, MCC&P develops crossover advertising in a process they call transcreation.

Ethnic marketing has become an industry in its own right, bringing together experts with the latest technological training and advanced research methods to investigate attitudes, culture, heroes, trusted organizations, and lifestyles. Some of the most recent training programs include workshops on marketing on-line, touting multicultural e-commerce as the next frontier. In the 1999-2000 edition of The Source Book of Multicultural Experts, a reference guide published by Multicultural Marketing Resources, Inc., no fewer than two hundred companies and individuals in the business were listed. Since 1996 the organization has also produced the bimonthly newsletter Multicultural Marketing News. At a 1998 roundtable on niche marketing, sponsored by the magazine Advertising Age, Gilbert Davila, director of multicultural marketing for Sears, Roebuck & Co., observed: “Ten years ago, I never got a resume from anybody coming out of a business school saying, ‘I want to pursue a career in multicultural or ethnic marketing.’ And we get them today. And that to me is fascinating.”1

Ferreting out information such as the brand of soft drink favored by California Mexicans or the percentage of African-American households that own microwaves, the reason Hispanics are less likely to use credit cards, or the preference of Korean immigrants for commercials that show viewers how to use merchandise have all become essential to successful product promotion. Even academics are conducting segmentation surveys. A study comparing Korean-immigrant and American-born product selections showed differences in consumption of automobiles, stereo systems, laundry detergent, and coffee. The most significant discriminating variable was that the least acculturated Koreans put family wants above individual consumer choices.2 In their search for messages and strategies that would be the most emotionally compelling and motivating, HMC found patterns among Latinos that resembled those of the Korean sector. The agency developed a rewards programs for Hispanics. Female customers could choose jewelry, a day at a spa, a new kitchen, or a family vacation. A similar list was offered to a general market group. What HMC discovered was consistent with their expectations: Latina women repeatedly opted for those rewards that were directed toward the family, such as having the kitchen remodeled or the vacation package, but most of the women in the general market category, particularly those of working age, preferred a day at a spa—alone. The rewards were more for themselves, to gratify individual desires.

Traditionally, ethnic enterprises capitalize on catering to a co-ethnic clientele, the culture with which they are most familiar. Sometimes they conduct their businesses in their native language, utilizing the ethnic press, taking advantage of advertising possibilities within the compatriot community’s calendar of special events, specializing in indigenous merchandise and culturally specific services, and making a point of getting to know their customers’ distinctive consumer preferences well. Corporate target marketing specialists are simply attempting to master the approach that local ethnic entrepreneurs have always based their business ventures on, but the big companies have to try to adapt these techniques to work on a much broader scale.

However, the most sophisticated target marketers understand the limitations of too wide a scope for their multinational constituencies. A crucial component of their staff training is to develop an awareness of the complex intraethnic variations among both the Hispanic and Asian segments and to pass this knowledge on to their clients. For instance, although both Cubans and Mexicans are classified as Hispanic by virtue of their common language, in reality their sociocultural histories and patterns of settlement in the United States are quite divergent and demand differentiated marketing approaches. When marketing specialists at the Bustelo coffee company determined that Mexicans and Central Americans, compared with all other Hispanics, preferred instant coffee to espresso, they developed television commercials depicting their instant varieties to broadcast in the Chicago and the Bay Area, urban centers with substantial Mexican-American communities. Bustelo’s market research is so refined that the company has even tracked how tastes in coffee drinking change when people relocate. For example, Mexicans who move to Miami or to New York tend to pick up on the espresso and specialty coffee trends, and subsequently their consumption of instant coffee declines.

Unlike Hispanics, among the diverse Asian populations— Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, etc.— language (other than English) is not even a common ground on which to base communication strategies. To reinforce the absurdity of lumping all Asian Americans together, in one of his ethnic marketing training sessions, Elliot Kang of Kang & Lee Advertising quipped: “If your father is Japanese and your mother is Korean and you lived in Taiwan and then your parents got divorced, moved to Los Angeles and your father took up with the Filipino woman next door and married her—well, that’s almost like being Asian American.”3

Yet despite all the research into the shades of diversity, one other unexplored multicultural frontier still exists. Marketing specialists to date have failed to recognize the growing intracultural variety within the nation’s conglomerate black population. With increasing numbers of non-Hispanic Caribbean consumers of both British West Indian and Haitian descent, not to mention the array of new arrivals from various nations of the continent of Africa itself, clarification of the nuances of African-based ethnicities, of the distinctions among Haitian, Jamaican, Ethiopian, or African-American cultures become more and more relevant in the marketplace and beyond.

One of the most elaborate of the differentiated corporate marketing specialists is Florida-based Market Segment Research and Consulting (MSR.&C), a firm that has put itself in the forefront of the demassification trend by attempting to fill what it identifies as an information gap concerning the country’s changing demographics. An Ethnic Market Report published by MSR&C in 1996—in collaboration with the US. Census Bureau, Geoscape International.

General Market Total Anglo,
Total African-American,
Total Hispanic,
Total Asian,
Casual Sneakers 56 57 49 60 48
Exercize walking 33 35 30 22 21
Basketball 26 26 41 19 14
Outdoor 21 22 27 8 16
Cross Training 16 17 23 7 12
Aerobic/step 14 16 14 10 9
Jogging or running 14 13 17 11 17
Hiking 11 12 9 3 12
Tennis 11 9 12 26 10
Golf 3 4 1 0 2
Bowling 2 2 2 2 2
Soccer 1 1 0 7 2

Example of a comparative table from the 1996 MSR&C Ethnic Market Report

(specializing in mapping demographic shifts), and Information Resources, Inc. (to help answer the question of who is buying what)—goes a long way toward closing that gap. Entitled A Portrait of the New America, the compilation provides the most up-to-date information about ethnic consumers’ cultural, demographic, and behavioral patterns. The report had broad corporate sponsorship from such leading firms as Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, and General Mills.

The primary survey data was based on five thousand telephone and face-to-face interviews in major cities across the country, which used native-language speakers as interviewers so that respondents could answer in the language they preferred. National random sampling was mixed with samples that reflected a cross section based on variation in population density. Of the five thousand interviews, two thousand were conducted with Hispanics and one thousand each with the Anglo, African-American, and Asian segments, covering the subject areas of media usage, shopping behavior, views on social and political issues, leisure activities, product information, and financial services. Examples of the kinds of questions asked include number of hours spent watching TV, listening to the radio, and reading newspapers and magazines in English and native languages; frequency of grocery shopping, coupon use, catalog mail-ordering, and purchase of recycled products; attitudes toward gays and lesbians, drugs, government, and immigration; types of movies preferred, number of greeting card purchases, car ownership, kinds of medical insurance, and incidence of various types of bank accounts.

In the most fascinating and informative section for marketers and social scientists alike, the results of the same interview questions that were posed to each segment are compiled in comparative charts so that the reader can easily see the differences between general market, Anglo, African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American consumers in all categories. Finally, the volume includes reprints of the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics 1994-1995 Consumer Expenditure Survey as applied to Hispanics and African Americans and the 1992 Economic Census Surveys of Minority and Women Business Ownership.

What sets this report apart from earlier MSR&C publications is the incorporation of the software technology of Geoscape International. The book is illustrated with visually incisive and user-friendly “geodemographic profiles” that map market landscapes across the country, including levels of media coverage, to create an entirely new field of marketing topology. For example, for the six megametropolitan centers of Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and the Bay Area, Geoscape diagrams distribution


General Market Total Anglo,
Total African-American,
Total Hispanic,
Total Asian,
I prefer to use
sugar rather than sugar substitutes
52 49 56 69 50
I enjoy baking 40 39 40 57 23
We’re mainly
a meat & potatoes family
39 38 34 59 21
I collect recipes 35 36 32 37 27
No matter how
busy I am I make sure I eat the right foods
35 30 36 65 48
I exercise regularly 34 33 34 43 31
I’m worried about
becoming overweight
28 24 27 62 28
I often overindulge 20 19 22 33 18
One way to limit
the amount of sugar I use is by using sugar substitutes
24 22 24 38 14
I feel guilty
eating foods I like
18 15 17 39 16
My family and
I eat a lot of fast food
11 8 19 27 12

Example of a comparative table from the 1996 MSR&C Ethnic Market Report

of the primary multicultural aggregations, where Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, or a combination of these groups make up 25 percent or more of the neighborhood’s population on a map that also indicates the size and location of all the shopping centers in the area to make the parameters of each micromarket segment clear. Other illustrations highlight more scattered population densities, labeled hot spots, in states that are not usually associated with this type of ethnic diversity. The purpose here is to furnish companies with the tools for microtargeted advertising initiatives that will save them having to cover an entire region to reach more localized concentrations of potential customers. Indeed, the whole thrust of these mappings is to reduce the geusswork involved in target marketing, whether the focus is on foreign-language use, retail site segmentation, outdoor advertising campaigns, the design of sales districts, or tracking telecommunications networks.

The other collaborator. Information Resources, relies on what is called an InfoScan service that brings together data from over twenty thousand grocery, mass merchandise, discount, and drugstores to expand considerably the documentation of ethnic purchasing trends. If a client wants to know which ethnic group buys more pickles, antifreeze, or foot care products in any particular locale, the answer is immediately available. Indeed, even more specific preferences are tabulated, such as whether chicken noodle or tomato soup is favored by African Americans or Hispanics. Sometimes explanations are given for differentials in ethnic consumption; e.g.» the higher Hispanic birth rate (twenty-two versus thirteen per thousand among Angles) is offered as the reason that diaper sales have soared in Hispanic neighborhoods. But for the most part, the findings arc presented without further analysis. Thus the 1996 Ethnic Market Report brought together the methods of more traditional social science data-gathering, such as surveys and in-depth interviews, with the latest techniques of consumer research, including detailed population profiles, zip code, census tract and block group breakdowns as well as precise measurements of media signal quality and product sales, to determine the universe of potential buyers. Employment of a multilingual staff polishes this comprehensive approach to marketing dynamics.

Some ethnic marketing initiatives do use foreign-language advertisements, especially as a strategy for reaching the Hispanic population, since Spanish remains by far the most popularly spoken non-English language in the United States. (Seventy percent of Hispanic residents were born abroad; an equal percentage speak Spanish at home.) French, German, Italian, and Chinese arc the next most frequently spoken languages, but German and Italian are declining in popularity, whereas the number of Chinese-speaking households is rapidly increasing, along with Korean, Vietnamese, Farsi, and Hindi speakers. For example, in Los Angeles, the Korean-speaking population is large enough to support the circulation of three daily native-language newspapers. According to Maria Dias, marketing manager at AT&T Language Line Services, the three industries in which language resources are becoming increasingly essential are utilities, health care management, and financial services; the languages most in demand include Arabic, Cantonese, French, Haitian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Language Line Services was started in 1990 to assist 911 operators in responding to non-English-speaking callers. By 1998 their over-the-phone interpretation service to various segments of the business community had expanded to provide access to professional interpreters twenty-four hours a day in one hundred forty languages. For GTE telecommunications, attention to the Asian-American segment has become paramount in recent years. There has been an emphasis on marketing in the Chinese language—both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects—and in Korean and Vietnamese. Since this customization began, the company has seen significant growth in those sectors.

The demographics in certain sections of the country are so compelling that even car manufacturers have begun to design foreign-language advertising. In 1999 the Ford Motor Company produced its first Asian-language advertising to market its minivan and sports utility models. The promotion includes TV and newspaper ads in three languages—Chinese, Korean, and Filipino—to appear in newspapers and on cable news programs throughout California. In addition, the company has set up an 800-number consumer hot line staffed with operators fluent in the three languages. Although other car makers have targeted Asians by dubbing English-language commercials, Ford is the first to create specific in-language spots. The new ads also feature actors representing the three nationalities.

Imada Wong Communications based in Los Angeles has been particularly successful in campaigns to reach new-immigrant consumers. One of their most innovative promotions was the design of a booklet welcoming immigrants to the United States and filled with practical advice, such as how to turn on the gas, open a checking account, or use an ATM. Called The Newcomer’s Guide, it was co-sponsored by corporations from several industries, including Bank of America, AT&T, Pacific Gas and Electric, GTE, and New York Life. The first twenty-five thousand copies published in Chinese and in Spanish were snapped up in a couple of weeks.

Bank of America and AT&T also say that ethnic consumers are responding to the in-language commercials they air on the Spanish-language Telemundo and Univision networks. The vice president of Ethnic Marketing at Bank of America, David Bland, echoes the overarching philosophy of all such industry efforts when he says that “We feel it is not just a good thing to do in the social consciousness sense, but it is a good thing to do in the business sense.” For in-language spots on television, marketers can “add the cultural nuances, music, and other cultural cues that make the message much more memorable,” explains Fred Teng, district manager of marketing communications at AT&T. YAR Communications also concentrates on diverse domestic foreign-language campaigns. Yuri Radzievsky reasons that “You’re talking about a marketplace equal to a good-size European country that can be reached with non-English media within the U.S.”4 Shopping in one’s native language is also catching on in the burgeoning frontier of e-commerce with such alternatives as, an on-line marketplace designed for the Spanish-speaking world and specializing in the sale of books, music, and videos.

As companies are investing in a wide variety of foreign-language promotions, they also must address the possibility of more than one language spoken among a particular ethnic population or even multiple dialects within a shared-language group. When Kang & Lee runs ads in Chinese, they design them in both Cantonese and Mandarin versions. Determining exactly which foreign-language media will be most effective, which dialects are most appropriate, and whether to advertise in English as well to capture the majority of foreign-language speakers who are bilingual are all important issues for the ethnic marketer.5

Even if the actual ads are not in the first language of the target group, the research that an ethnic marketing firm undertakes is likely to be more accurate if it is conducted in the respondents’ native tongue. Kang & Lee does all of its survey and interview research in the first language of immigrant consumers. Its studies showed that close to 80 percent of Koreans, 98 percent of Vietnamese, and 85 percent of Chinese interviewed preferred to speak their own language at home. The lowest rate, at 30 percent, is among Japanese because they are the most assimilated subset of the Asian segment. The marketers are quick to point out, however, that this does not necessarily mean that those surveyed do not understand English. In fact, it is likely that their jobs require that they speak English during the day, but when they are home, their preference is almost always to receive messages in their own language. Erlich Transcultural Consultants, a California firm, uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to specialize in studies that are conducted in-language. One such research effort, a strategic qualitative study of Filipinos in the United States and the Philippines conducted for US. and Hong Kong banks, garnered the company a 1996 industry award for the best non-English advertising.

In addition to corporate research, a sprinkling of studies dealing with immigrants as consumers has begun to appear in academic and professional publications. Earlier investigations tended to compare Mexican consumption patterns to those of Anglos. The findings resembled chose of the corporate experts; e.g. Mexicans prefer to shop at stores where Spanish is spoken and are more brand-loyal than their Anglo counterparts. Lisa Penaloza’s 1994 article on Mexican immigrants in the Journal of Consumer Research is a departure from that comparative model, addressing instead the question of how these newcomers adapt to the marketplace once in the United States. She demonstrates how recent intensive initiatives by corporate America to target the Latino market have influenced Mexican immigrant consumption patterns. The combination of a well-established Mexican-American community and the systematic strategies already in place to market to this population cases the transition to their new surroundings because it means there is considerable continuity in buying patterns. Most obviously, many of the same foods consumed in Mexico are now conveniently available in the United States, but, in addition, familiar health and beauty products, household goods, religious artifacts, and items of clothing can readily be found in their new surroundings. Furthermore, the globalization of American businesses means that many of the immigrants are probably already acquainted with popular franchises and brand names such as McDonald’s, KFC, Nike, Levi’s, and, of course, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, all of which have a foothold in Mexico. This study showed that immigrants from urban areas had an easier time adjusting than their rural counterparts, since as city-dwellers, they had more exposure to a consumer culture resembling that in the United States.

However, Penaloza’s conclusions go further than simply crediting the marketplace with facilitating adaptation; they suggest that, in powerful ways, marketers both validate and perpetuate the maintenance of a vibrant Mexican culture in the United States. Invisible in most other contexts of their adopted country, Mexican immigrants as American consumers have been recognized and even sought after by marketers, who make concerted efforts to reach them through the Spanish-language media. Marketers offer specially tailored merchandise and services that support the continuation of Mexican cultural forms while at the same time providing the vehicle through which the newcomers are introduced to the mainstream consumer world.6

The YAR Communications agency systematically differentiates between long-standing and emergent ethnic communities in the discourse of their promotional literature and in the design of their campaigns, referring to these recent immigrant target groups as New American Pioneers, a title that includes all non-English-speaking people arriving in significant numbers, such as Iranians, Koreans, or Russians, no matter what that population’s racial makeup. Actually YAR is the only agency to have gone so far as to develop promotions pitched specifically to Anglo-Americans, cleverly featuring emblematic British customs and idiosyncratic turns of phrase in ads created for AT&T’s international long-distance service. They recognize that the impetus to want to identify with shared cultural roots is universal in America today. Newcomers and old-timers, white and nonwhite ethnics alike, become strategic targets. The result is a common psychology of advertising.

YAR’s communications strategies take into account the way length of residence in a new country affects variation in consumer demand. Yuri Radzievsky explains:

As much as these newcomers love America, they remain equally rooted to the cultures of their homelands. Marketers that can bridge these two influences will create a dynamic new generation of brand loyalists. Rebuilding lives and households, they will consume goods and services on a scale unprecedented in the modern era . . . The marketer who speaks to the unique blend of old and new for each of the New American Pioneers will win their acceptance—and their business.

Immigrants have this bond with their roots. They may live in their ethnic communities or they may move out of their communities because their income allows them to buy better places in better geographical locations but inevitably most of them come back. Not physically but come back in the sense that when they open the New Tork Times the first thing they are looking for is, “What happened in Russia yesterday?” or “What happened in Cuba yesterday?” They go back to the neighborhoods where their cultures live to go to the restaurants and the cultural events. The connection is much more than language and geographical location.7

Although typically more concerned with the psychology of the immigrant experience in general, social scientists have concurred with YAR’s more pragmatic analysis that new immigrants are likely to be avid shoppers. Consumption can provide a means of creating a new identity in America, particularly when upward mobility occurs or is anticipated. Some newcomers eagerly look to migration as an opportunity to alter their identity, but even those for whom the experience of relocation has been more jarring, consumer goods can serve as a means to reconstitute new cultural identities.

In many respects, immigrants are the ideal consumers. The “need-everything” generation arrives without refrigerator, stove, washing machine, television set, or automobile. They buy what they can afford, but as they adapt and move up the economic scale, they upgrade these items so that both the need and frequency of purchase is greater than in the general marketplace. Moreover, as Radzievsky points out, there is often an overcompensation factor: they tend to make up for all the years in which acquisition of such an array of material goods would have been unthinkable. One of the few systematic studies of new-immigrant buying patterns confirms this point. Among the young, upwardly mobile Punjabi population, the accumulation of high-status possessions is a key marker to signify successful assimilation into American society, signs that they actually fit in.8 Although some newcomers, such as Mexicans, arrive already familiar with American labels through the export of American popular culture and have been shown to carry brand loyalty with them across the border, Radzievsky, nonetheless, looks at new immigrants as consumers who are wide-open targets for advertising campaigns:

What a fantastic opportunity! What an audience—a brand-blind audience. They come willing to learn, willing to experiment. They don’t have preconceived notions of loyalties to other brands. All you need is to become the choice of the community. Because the opinion swell of the community is more powerful than any rational reason. You come and you ask your neighbor what to do. You do what others do. This is virgin territory. There are no preconceived choices. And advertising to them is not more expensive than advertising through the mass media channels. It’s just more targeted—less wasteful.9

Actually, the newest multicultural marketing niche is what sociologists term the 1.5 generation—individuals who straddle the immigrant generation (usually referred to as the first generation— born outside the United States) and the children of immigrants (born in this country and known as the second generation). The 1.5 cohort is made up of those who arrive in the United States as young children, under eighteen years of age. They come to their new country with their parents or as part of family units, not by their own choice. As a result, their patterns of assimilation and the ways in which their native language and culture are manifest may differ from cither the immigrant or second generation. Some may adapt very quickly, as if born in the United States themselves, speaking English without an accent and exhibiting cultural preferences that are representative of mainstream American culture, whereas others may more resemble the immigrant generation and still hold strong ties to native traditions. Marketers now realize that they need to pay attention to such nuances of behavior among this growing sector. This is especially true among the burgeoning Asian-American segment because this not only is the fastest growing population in every age cohort, but also ranks highest of any group in the United States in average household income and level of education.

Another approach to ethnic marketing is represented by Hallmark’s highly successful Common Threads collection, which was discussed previously. Rather than trying to target a particular segment, this line was intended to broaden the ethnic market by appealing to consumers who appreciate cultural diversity. Hallmark’s Ethnic Business Center oversees their popular Mahogany (African Americans), Primor (Hispanics), and Tree of Life (Jewish) lines, but the Common Threads collection is not under its auspices. The unity cards are not reflective of a specific culture; nor are they directed at a particular ethnic group. Instead, messages are chosen to represent shared truths found in poetry, proverbs, and lyrics drawn from a variety of the world’s cultures, emphasizing a philosophy of global community and diverse cultural expression. After qualitative research determined that consumers are more likely to be aware of and interested in bringing multiculturalism into their daily lives. Hallmark created this product line to accentuate commonalties, not differences. “Common Thread is eth-mix, not ethnic,” explained one design manager. Executives at Hallmark think that there is a strong possibility that historians will look back one day and label this era the “Age of Multiculturalism.”10

Although it was anticipated that African Americans, Hispanics, or Asians might make up a small portion of those who would choose a Common Threads card. Hallmark focus group data revealed that primary interest came from the white or Caucasian market. These were the same buyers who reported ownership of multicultural clothing, jewelry, or decorative items for the home and who sought out goods they considered unique, inspiring, meaningful, or creative. Hallmark developed the collection to feature inspirational messages and colorful artwork drawn from a mixture of many different cultural backgrounds. On the back of each Common Threads card or specialty product, the underlying philosophy is spelled out:

“Every culture enriches our lives with its own unique beauty and wisdom. Yet we all share the same hopes and dreams, the same need for love and home and kinship. These are the common threads that bind us together as one family in one world.”

Companies such as Hallmark are cognizant of the profits to be made by marketing to the “New America.” Moreover, they understand that a significant proportion of white America is ready to embrace these changes as well. As the largest maker and seller of greeting cards in the world—the company holds 47 percent of the American market alone—Hallmark has been dubbed the General Motors of emotion because of its close attention to social trends. Thus, Common Threads has not only cashed in on multiculturalism but also banked on the likelihood that its clientele will respond positively to other liberal appeals, such as the promotion of global awareness and cross-cultural understanding. Indeed, the theme of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s presidential address, “Insiders and Outsiders,” at the 1996 meeting of the American Studies Association, an annual conference for academics in the field that happened to be held that year in Kansas City, Hallmark’s hometown, was a call for the membership to seek commonalties after years of accentuating differences. Her scholarly conceptualization of the state of American cultural dynamics matched Hallmark’s own corporate assessment of the pluralism of contemporary social trends.11

After only a few months on the market, sales tallies confirmed that the Common Threads idea was a sound one. Not surprisingly, the line sold particularly well among students and teachers, but what was especially noteworthy was that demand was strong in almost all areas of the country, not just in major metropolitan centers. Nonetheless, what could not be alluded to in such a Utopian representation of multicultural harmony was any suggestion of the harsh inequities inherent in the transnational labor market. Although the reality of the production of Hallmark greeting cards is itself relatively benign, imported merchandise that gets categorized as ethnic chic, especially garments and home furnishings, often results from escalating levels of worker exploitation. By the time global goods produced by local labor end up in the hands of cosmopolitan American consumers, the process can have been a decidedly inharmonious one.

Another way that the demographic revolution has touched corporate America is that executives are beginning to understand the potential of capitalizing on the diverse cultural backgrounds of their own employees to improve the quality of the goods and services produced. Similar to the process in the wider society, the ethnic composition of the business sector is also shifting, albeit more slowly than some would like to see, and firms that market ethnicity are able to use ethnic resources within their own ranks. As one design manager at Hallmark described it, “Artists and writers drew from their own ethnic heritages—which, in this studio, are particularly diverse. But we decided early on that they should have the freedom to express any cultural theme that they cared about and wanted to study.” To illustrate, he pointed out a gift bag in the Common Threads line that reflected an African-American style but had been designed by an Asian staff member.12 By giving him encouragcment to follow through on his interests in “the other,” the corporation was practicing the very philosophy that its product line promotes. Similarly, whether Jewish or not (and most are not), members of the design team for the Tree of Life division, a collection geared especially to appeal to Jewish consumers, are enrolled by Hallmark in Hebrew and Judaism classes and are frequently sent on trips to Israel, all for the purpose of cultivating the highest levels of cultural sensitivity in the creative process.

Among multicultural marketing firms, the diversity of in-house staff is often crucial to the company’s success. Admerasia, a multicultural communications agency headquartered in New York, and its partner company, Cyverasia, highlight in their print ads the extent to which their multilingual and multiethnic employees expand the firm’s overall cultural knowledge and learn from one another. On one side of a two-part spread, a white male holding a laptop computer is pictured with the transgressive and attention-grabbing line “He’s, not just Asian” printed across his obviously Caucasian body, The fine print, however, reads: “Jeff was just American, until he joined Admerasia. Now he’s immersed in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and South Asian cultures, and he’s running our multicultural interactive company.” On the opposite page, the reader sees Zan, an Asian male, with children playing in a tree house as the backdrop and the words “He’s not just American” in front of him. “Zan was just Asian, but he had a dream of coming to America. Now he’s built a tree house just for his kids and a multicultural advertising agency called Cyverasia that bridges two cultures, Asian and American.” At the bottom of the ad, the fine print explains that “Jeff and Zan work at Admerasia—the creative, market-driven advertising agency we created five years ago … for clients with interactive and telemarketing needs.”

One of the main selling points of YAR Communications is that the professional staff represents some eighty different nationalities, speaking as many different languages. Radzicvsky observes:

We often tell our clients that we are the markets that they are trying to reach. We arc representatives of these markets. We have French-Americans, German-Americans, Greek-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian Americans working right here. We are a kind of reflection of the multiculturalism of the society.13

A central component of YAR’s philosophy is the belief that “Brands that best embody cultural roots and values build the strongest bonds with consumers.” The employees have been immersed in the very cultures that their clients are most eager to penetrate. Personnel are carefully organized into management teams called cultural circles, which at their best operate as groups of skillful ethnographers with an insider’s perspective because they are natives of the markets they serve. As a result, many of their media and design ideas grow directly out of their own cultural experiences. The combination of first-hand cultural knowledge and American marketing savvy gives them a competitive edge. At the same time, they are much less likely to commit cross-cultural marketing blunders.

For example, ads for Mack Trucks featuring the well-known bulldog symbol presented a considerable challenge when the company decided to expand into the Chinese market, since dogs do not carry positive associations within Chinese culture; in fact, they are viewed as an inferior species. Linking the image of a dog to the product being sold would do much more harm than good. Thus, for Chinese-language TV stations in this country as well as for the Mack Truck campaign in China itself, the YAR team redesigned the piece, replacing the bulldog with the more highly regarded horse as the logo, an innovation that had the added advantage of alluding to the force of the trucks’ horsepower. With another client, Merrill Lynch, it wasn’t a bulldog but their trademark bull that caused problems when the brokerage firm wanted to begin placing ads in the Russian-language press in the United States. For Russians, the image seemed to trigger thoughts of food rather than finance and it needed to be reworkcd to achieve the desired effect. Indeed, in the global marketplace, it is no longer enough simply to specialize in knowing one other foreign culture well, as illustrated by the case of the Mitsubishi corporation wanting to name one of its new car models the Pajero. The YAR staff did a comprehensive search and found that in some parts of Latin America pajero is a slang term for compulsive sexual behavior! Needless to say, Mitsubishi made a quick switch and introduced the car as a Montero instead.

These were all cases where knowledge of appropriate cultural translation supplanted a literal one. The two kinds of expertise, foreign-language proficiency and thorough cultural comprehension, go hand in hand. Emphasizing the importance of grasping the nuances of distinctive cultural detail from facial expressions and gestures to modes of dress, Anna Radzievsky, YAR’s executive vice president, stresses that, “It matters which way you close your kimono … and what color you wear for mourning.”14 Whether dealing with language, logos, visuals, or packaging, the cultural context is intrinsic to YAR’s strategy.

Having a workforce that is representative of the ethnicities of the primary target audiences not only helps to ensure that cross-cultural marketing campaigns succeed but also adds greater credibility to the business, particularly concerning issues of authenticity. The InterTrend Communications firm, based in California and specializing in the Asian market, uses just such a cross-cultural blunder to promote its own services in a print ad that shows a bowl of rice with chopsticks plunged vertically into its contents and the word “OOOPS” written above it. The lead-in narration reads: “If this picture offends you, we apologize. If it doesn’t, perhaps we should explain. Because, although this picture looks innocent enough, to the Asian market, it symbolizes death. But then, not every one should be expected to know that. That’s where we come in.” InterTrend goes on to promise to share more of their trade secrets with interested clients. Indeed, even within the company itself, there was considerable resistance to the design by some Asian staff members who were appalled at the idea of a promotion that used such a disturbing image.15

From the very beginnings of international marketing endeavors, the need for cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity has been evident. When International Harvester began advertising to foreign markets in the early years of this century, a Chinese salesman warned the company that red should not be used in the ads because it represented mourning and would be offensive. Similarly, by 1913 the Armour company realized that it had to make changes in the traditional blue-and-yellow color scheme of its labels when it began to sell its products in Norway because those were Sweden’s national colors.16 Although such dangers have challenged the business sector since the advent of world marketing campaigns, it is only in the last several years that specialists have appeared on the horizon of corporate America to obviate such problems.

Interviews conducted with individuals involved in ethnic marketing reveal a consistent pattern of passionate commitment to their work. To be sure, they hold the conventional goals of increasing market shares and profits in the business world, but they are motivated also by the emotions associated with expressions of personal identity. These professionals are able to find meaning and inspiration in the workplace by building on their own cultural strengths. Furthermore, they typically carry an enthusiastic sense of purpose about their niche in corporate America. When Gary Berman, president of Market Segment Research, Inc., clarifies concerns that are central to his firm—the questions of what, if anything, differentiates any ethnic group from the general market and which media will make a significant impact—he quickly adds, “And then the issue is how does one reach them in a culturally meaningful and respectful manner?” Anna Radzicvsky puts it this way: “Multicultural marketing means approaching consumers through their complex cultural affinities—the various symbols, core values, traditions, political nuances, and passions. It means that, by your knowledge of what is important to them, you are not merely an interloper who is trying to make money from them, but a kindred spirit who knows their hearts—and is really one of them.”17

Oftentimes, ethnic marketers are involved with the manufacture and promotion of goods and services that they and their families want and do consume themselves, products that were unavailable to them in an era of mass consumption. Amy Hilliard-Jones, an African American who now heads her own ethnic marketing agency in Chicago, began her specialization by asking a simple question of the Gillette corporation in Boston when she was first hired in 1980 after graduating from the Harvard Business School. She wondered if they had a shampoo for women with hair like hers. She asked not only out of interest in the company but also because of personal concern about her own hair care. That inquiry led to her development of the highly successful White Rain Shampoo and Conditioners line and to Hilliard-Jones spending the next ten years with Gillette. In the early 1990s she moved on to Pillsbury, where she created their targeted marketing division. Hilliard-Jones is a multicultural marketing authority who feels most proud of her work when it takes her clients to whole new levels of cultural awareness.18

Some entrepreneurs may find that what they produce fills an important affective gap in the lives of their customers. Phil Okrend, the founder of MixBlessing, a family business that markets inter-faith holiday cards, believes they arc doing much more than merely selling stationery. The clientele reports that the merchandise— items such as the Chanukah/Christmas greeting card displaying the scene of an inviting hearth decorated with both a menorah on the mantel and Christmas stockings hanging from it—provide an emotional resource and a means of engagement among a population that may no longer feel a sense of belonging to either the Jewish or the Christian community because of intermarriage. The Okrends are definitely on to something. Their small company is only in its seventh year, yet its sales top more than 200,000 cards annually.19

At Mattel, Deborah Mitchell, the product manager for girls’ toys and developer of the Shani line of black dolls, pragmatically stated: “You can’t say we’re just in it for the money, and you can’t say we’re in it just for public relations. We’re looking at it both ways, and you’re going to see a lot more companies move the same way.”20 In today’s marketplace, even those who are clearly driven solely by the bottom line must still appear to be genuinely interested in the workings of diverse cultures and may discover that in the process they have learned something meaningful about the behaviors of both their own cultural group and that of other ethnicities.

Like anthropologists, ethnic marketing specialists are paid to be conscious of cultural nuances and will usually introduce their specialty with a personal narrative, demonstrating how their own cultural background relates to their current projects. At the “Marketing to a New America” conference for corporate training in outreach to ethnic consumers, attended by managers representing such big-name companies as Procter & Gamble, Pillsbury, J. C. Penney, and Cellular One, the presenters began their sessions with anecdotal and personal accounts of themselves, their families, or their communities. Thus, the training began from the moment the workshop leaders took the podium. The audience might have seen an Asian or Hispanic face, but before, stereotypical responses could set in, the speakers revealed and, thus, individuated themselves through autobiographical speech. They talked about their families or told a safe ethnic joke to immediately personalize their expertise and to affirm that, despite perceived ethnic or racial differences, they shared much in common with those in attendance.

At one session, after a glowing introduction by the white male chairperson and president of the organization, Gary Berman, which included nothing short of crediting the next presenter with revolutionizing the marketing strategies of the entire U.S. Postal Service, the African-American head of ethnic marketing at the Postal Service, who was conducting the workshop, began by taking nearly ten minutes of his forty-five-minute presentation to introduce himself and his family, replete with slides and sound effects. Since the conference was being held in New York City, the speaker cleverly used the location as the pretext to show slides of a recent family vacation in the Big Apple. He then effortlessly segued into the substance of his talk—the charts and the figures—beginning with “The Postal Service is a newcomer in this field.” His carefully thought out prefatory remarks and the amount of time devoted to them served to demystify and dilute stereotypes of black men. The specialist is an approachable, suburban, middle-class family man—his son, the African-American equivalent of Macaulay Culkin—and the family experienced typical adventures in the big city that would be familiar to almost anyone. The introduction also served to demonstrate and model cross-racial workplace rapport, first with Herman’s enthusiastic comments about the speaker, but even more effectively later with the speaker’s own depiction of easy socializing at a previous conference.

Though handled with subtlety, such concerted attention to combating racial stereotypes has probably not been overdone. In conversation exchanged prior to his formal presentation, the speaker talked about the core resistance to ethnic marketing at the U.S. Postal Service, particularly at the senior management level—not surprisingly since this is a cohort made up primarily of white males over fifty. He attributed Gary Herman’s success as a trainer partly to Berman’s being a white male like them, someone with whom they can identify more readily. Personnel have generally responded positively to Berman and tend to be less threatened by the changes his strategies suggest. Although Herman’s more mainstream identity profile is an asset for reaching such occupational groups as Postal Service managers, since he is the chief consultant at an ethnic marketing firm, it is equally important for him, at the same time, to clearly establish his multicultural credentials. At the New York Ethnic Marketing conference, he accomplished this right from the start of the day’s events as he introduced the conference agenda, setting the tone and modeling the autobiographical approach.

However, unlike the other workshop leaders representing various minority groups who followed him and who attempted to debunk assumptions based on ethnic stereotyping by creating self-portraits that highlight their commonalities with the corporate managers in the audience, Berman, instead, showcased his multiethnic versatility as a way to legitimize his authority on the subject. In the midst of a slide-lecture filled with sophisticated tables, geographic mappings, and numerical breakdowns of the size and growth of diverse ethnic segments, he threw up a slide showing his wife and two daughters, indirectly conveying in a deliberately light-hearted tone that his wife has Hispanic origins by telling the audience that half the time she speaks Spanish to the kids, and always to her friends and family, and that one of their daughters uses the Spanish spelling of her name.

Perhaps the riskiest segment of Herman’s presentation was his discussion of the racial implications of shopping patterns related to razor blade consumption. Preliminary findings revealed that African Americans have a lower incidence of purchase, a pattern that has been tentatively linked to data showing that this population suffers more often from the painful condition of razor bumps, making it harder for them to shave and, thus, less likely to shave as frequently. Berman went on to report that Hispanics rank very high in razor blade use, but not necessarily because they shave so much more often but rather because there is a strong belief in the culture that you should shave with a razor only once. Consequently, they buy the disposable variety, discarding them after each use. Finally, and most cautiously, he got to the Asian segment to suggest why they too rank lower than the norm, qualifying his assertion that “it is not because they suffer from razor bumps but rather, on balance, making a sweeping generalization here, Asian Americans have less facial hair almost from a genetic or biological standpoint.” And he added quickly, “This is just one piece of data from which we have thousands. There are so many stories, at least hypotheticals, that you should at least think about.”

When the specialist on advertising to the Asian-American market came up to the lectern immediately following Berman’s talk, he picked right up on the razor blade analysis, diffusing its controversial quality and getting the audience to burst into laughter by joking, “I just want to support Gary’s data on the razor blade issue. Tomorrow’s my shaving day. It’s true. I shave a lot less than some of the women.” Next he started to teach the assembled group a few Korean words, beginning with the Korean ways of saying “hello” and “how are you,” then gave them a phrase that translates into “I like Elliot!” (the first name of the speaker). The audience broke out into even more laughter, to which the speaker responded with self-satire, “As a typical shy, introverted Asian male I need that support,” putting the stereotypes lightly out on the table but allowing the audience to join him in looking at them afresh. Considering that only in the last couple of years have Asians been seen alone in product advertisements, such multiracial consciousness-raising is no waste of an afternoon. Prior to 1996, if Asians were portrayed at all, they would be featured in ads as only one of several hues in a rainbow assortment of faces. Today they can be seen by themselves buying and selling Parker pens, UPS delivery, or IBM Thinkpads.

The YAR Communications agency describes its approach as one that links “the commonalities of consumption with the similarities of culture” (italics theirs). Big business, while recognizing the profitable possibilities of the ethnic marketplace, is at the same time borrowing the language of cultural anthropology to elucidate its aims. The head of a Chicago multicultural marketing firm even refers to herself as a “marketing anthropologist,” while the director of ethnic marketing at AT&T declared that “Marketing today is part anthropology.” It is in this sector of the economy that both business acumen and knowledge of culture meet. Sometimes the combination can have chilling implications, as in the case of a luncheon session sponsored by MasterCard at a multicultural marketing conference in New York, in which the organizers promised that MasterCard would “unveil the real values and attitudes of the Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American markets” (italics mine). In this arena, marketing experts become accomplished ethnographers mapping out the subtleties of cultural preferences and the demographics of multiethnic communities. At best, when such ethnic marketing events provide the right balance of sales information and cultural sensitivity training, those in attendance can return to their home offices not only with the tools to implement new segmented marketing strategies but also with a model of communications for operating in increasingly diverse workplace settings.


For notes on this excerpt, please reference the text.