If Not Now, Itsu (when)?

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A few weeks ago I was in Austin, Texas, for the annual American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) annual conference. This yearly event is a gathering of advertising and marketing leaders and focuses on thought leadership and issues affecting the advertising industry.

Having attended these conferences for the better part of 20 years, I always see lots of familiar faces and spend time rekindling old relationships, dishing about the business and trying to get a bead on the future. I walked into the large room for the beginning of the general session and began looking for a table. I spotted a table across the room that had a single person sitting there so I made a beeline, set down my orange juice, croissant and iPad and looked across the table to introduce myself.

Sitting across the table from me was Shingo Yamahara, a planner from the Tokyo office of Dentsu, Japan's largest agency and recently valued as the top agency brand in the world. We had a superficial conversation because his English was weak and my Japanese non-existent. I began to reflect that my long career in advertising has provided me little to no information about Japanese business or culture.

In fact, almost everything I could think of sitting there, I realized could very well be a stereotype. Three days later, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan causing tremendous destruction, triggering a devastating tsunami, killing more than 13,000 people with more than 14,000 people still missing and causing a nuclear disaster that might still pass that of Chernobyl. In the ensuing weeks, the images of Japan and the Japanese people bore very little resemblance to their portrayal in American popular culture including TV ads. Will one of the positive things that come out of this disaster be less stereotyping and more reality in the way we view Japan?

To be fair, the Japan media has a pretty wacky way of seeing us. For years, many of our most famous actors, from Brad Pitt to Natalie Portman have been stealing away to Japan and appearing in Japanese TV commercials promoting everything from low-calorie soft drinks to hair-care products while lining their pockets with yen. Japanese fixation on American culture doesn't end there; many products have English names or use English descriptors. And, in one of the strangest turns of all, the number one actor in Japanese TV commercials is an African American named Dante Carver who stars as the son of the Softbank Family. (The father is a white Siberian Husky).

Japan is 98.6 percent Japanese, so you can rationalize how foreigners can be seen as exotic. In the U.S, roughly 4.2 percent of the population is Asian, with Japanese making up over 1.2 million of that number. Thirty-five percent of the U.S. is a so-called ethnic minority.

Facts notwithstanding, the ad industry sometimes has a difficult time showing ethnic people without falling back on stereotypes. This column is not an exercise in finger-pointing so I won't give very many concrete examples…you watch TV.

As a concrete example though, take a look at a recent campaign (no longer running) for Hot Pockets called Hot Pockets Dojo. We portray Japanese as nerdy, bad drivers, model minorities or disciplined loyalists. The reasons are pretty straightforward. For the most part, advertising is about us and stereotypes are the shorthand that helps us frame the hero quickly and succinctly.

In sit-coms and movies, attractive supporting characters are often given glasses, dressed down or otherwise styled to make the main character more appealing. The problem with stereotypes is they are hard to erase. So in the aftermath of a crisis or disaster when it is time to see things as they really are, we don't have a bank of reference materials to withdraw from. I watched video of homes being destroyed by a giant wave and was struck that the picture, of ranch-style houses could have been in a suburb of Seattle or San Francisco.

Advertising isn't science, manufacturing or construction. Advertising won't supply the concrete, steel or wood that will be needed to rebuild Japan. It will not contribute a single high-tech system or electronic component for a consumer electronics item. In large part, advertising is a feeder off the estimated $200 billion it will take to rebuild Japan. It can however play a significant role in destroying the monolithic portrayal of Japanese and other Asians in the media and help present a more balanced image of the fourth-largest economy in the world.