Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | KFC TV commercial portrays Asians as foreigners with accents
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KFC TV commercial portrays Asians as foreigners with accents

When I posted the video yesterday, of a 1970s Calgon commercial that showed Asian Americans in a stereotypical role as laundry shop owners who used an “ancient Chinese secret” to get clothes cleaner, it was an homage to an earlier era when such stereotypes in pop culture were commonplace. I didn’t expect that one day after Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month ended, I’d be alerted to a new commercial that uses a fresher stereotype that still portrays us as foreigners.

The TV commercial for KFC’s new “Kentucky Grilled Chicken” shows a bunch of people paired up, arguing whether they like fried or grilled chicken better. You can now have both in the same bucket, KFC announces. The problem is, of the quick flashes of people, there are whites and blacks, young people and older, and… two Asian men dressed as sushi chefs, with their “hachimaki” headbands, hapi coats and aprons.

At first glance, they look like they’re wearing martial arts “gi” (the loose-fitting fighting clothes), which would have made it even worse.

What’s worse, is that these two dudes, who may or may not actually be Japanese, speak in Japanese accents.

To be fair, KFC is probably proud of the spot, and thinking it’s wonderfully diverse and multicultural. I count 10 different actors — five pairs — arguing over their chicken choice. Two white guys (twins?) are presented in business suits with ties. A man and woman are wearing casual but nice clothes (button down Oxford shirt, blouse), a white and a black girl, two young black women in what look like matching athletic outfits, and the two sushi chefs.

So, my question is: Why are the Asians the only ones who are obviously foreigners? Even if it’s not quite a racist stereotype, it hammers home the notion — once again — that Asians aren’t American, and we’ll always be exotic foreigners.

I’m not sayin’ there are no Asians who are foreigners in America, or that sushi chefs don’t ever wear hapi coats and hachimaki, and speak with accents. I’m just asking why the Asian faces in this one brief commercial can’t just be Asian Americans who wear, oh, I don’t know, t-shirts and jeans, and talk in normal American English without any discernible accent. After all, there are millions of us out there who are just like that.

Thankfully, I’m seeing Asian Americans all over the place these days in both TV shows (still in supporting roles, but a starring role’s gotta come eventually), and in commercials — without accents and foreign garb. You know the Southwest Airlines commercial with the woman who won’t let the guy punch a button on the elevator because she hates to stop? OK, she’s of Asian descent and she may be a bit wacky, but she does not have an accent.

How hard would it have been for KFC to do the same with their commercial? What agency came up with this spot, and who approved it at KFC?

Here’s the Southwest commercial:

(Thanks to JozJozJoz and 8Asians for giving me the heads-up about this commercial.)