San Diego Zoo Radio Commercial Speaks with Asian Stereotypes

By July 9, 2012The WIN Column


Dear Advertisers:  Please stop having actors in commercials speak with exaggerated stereotypical Asian accents.  That’s the loud message I want to send to the world-famous San Diego Zoo after recently hearing the radio commercial for its summertime “China Celebration.”  Ironically, what should be a nice event for families to celebrate cultural diversity is reinforcing racial insensitivities.

During the radio spot, a voice over actor talks about Chinese performance artists and cultural activities you can experience at the zoo during its special summer evening hours.  He speaks with a thick accent of unknown and generic Chinese dialect.  It was so racially stereotyped I was practically waiting for a martial artist to fly out of my car radio throwing chopsticks as deadly weapons.

Making matters worse, when the “Chinese” man is done speaking, another narrator recites basic zoo information using perfect American English.  Apparently, describing Monkey King Stilt Walkers and Golden Lion Acrobats must be enhanced with a faux “Kung Fu” accent while talking about the zoo in general does not require such Asian atmospherics.  I recognize that radio commercials can’t rely on visual imagery to create intrigue.  But are audience members so ignorant that we can’t visualize the wonders of China without a cartoonish accent?

Evidently, I am not the only person to notice.  On Twitter, a user named LOUISAHHH tweeted this message:  San Diego zoo china celebration radio ad: so racist. They practically “speak Chinese”.  On Facebook, Ken Leong posted to the San Diego Zoo’s Facebook page:  “WTF is with the China Celebration promo ad on the radio??” and complained about the “broken Chinese Kung Fu” accent.  Frankly, I’m surprised not to find more complaints about the commercial in the social media sphere.

Upon hearing the San Diego Zoo’s radio spot, I had immediate flashbacks to my youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  That was the era of “Kung Fu Theater” on television – when martial arts action films from Hong Kong and other Asian origins were dubbed with speaking in cartoonishly-accented English.

But even more memorable from my childhood was an advertisement from the 1970s – Calgon detergent’s classic “Ancient Chinese Secret” commercial.  That’s the infamous TV spot where a white woman goes into a Chinese laundry, asks the Chinese man how he gets shirts so clean, and his thick-accented reply is the classic line:  “Ancient Chinese Secret.”  Cut to the back of the laundry, where the Chinese man’s wife, sporting pigtails no less, explains:  “My husband, some hot shot.  Here’s his ancient Chinese secret – Calgon.” If you didn’t know, Calgon water softener helped gets clothes really clean.



As a child, I found these depictions to be amusing.  These were some of the few instances at the time when I actually saw Asian people on television.  But as I got older, I realized how these media depictions relied on blatant racial stereotypes.  A Chinese laundry?  A Chinese woman in pigtails?  Some ancient secret for getting clothes cleaner?  Really?

Because the Calgon commercial was from some 35+ years ago, you can forgive insensitivity from a less politically-correct era.  But it’s now 2012.  How could the San Diego Zoo or any advertiser think it’s still acceptable to have an actor speak with an exaggerated accent from any Asian language?

I thought our media ethos had moved largely past using Asian stereotypes in advertising.  Apparently, I’m wrong.  Asian American actors still battle with being underrepresented in entertainment and media projects.  When they do appear, let’s not relegate them to speaking like Fu Manchu.