Capitalizing on Multiculturalism: “Premium” Indian American Audiences and “American” advertisers
These days, New York Life, Metlife, Nationwide and State Farm, leading American insurance and financial investment companies, are all over Star Plus, an Indian satellite channel that is available on Dish and DirecTV in the US. The advertisements featuring these companies fall into the “culturally sensitive” category of marketing strategy. While the discourse of “ethnic” niches has been getting stronger in the fields of business and marketing since the 1990s, much of that attention was devoted to targeting black and Hispanic markets. Since the 2000s, however, the “premium” Asian American consumer has figured prominently in advertising discourse. The 2000 Census Report coupled with marketing surveys have helped generate the idea that Asian Americans not only represent a rapidly growing market in terms of numbers and buying power; they are also increasingly diverse in terms of their consumer choices. Not surprising, then, that in the first part of this decade, the turn towards multicultural advertising involved actively going after consumer groups such as Indian Americans.
Starting with Indian American print and online spaces, New York Life, Metlife, State Farm and Nationwide, which have been placing their ads on Indian American print and online media, now seem to be invested in Indian satellite television channels. While so far I have seen their English and Hindi language ads, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more in other Indian languages. Coming to the content of the ads themselves, tropes of home, family life, traditional festivals, pastoral village life, and hybrid Indian American lifestyles are liberally used to generate the message that Indian Americans with all their “difference” are understood and welcome here in America. While some advertisements leave little room for subtlety (like producing an “untouched India” motif with elephants, village life, and pastoral lifestyles to say something profound about tradition), there are others that are open to multiple readings and some which resist stereotypical representation. Another interesting feature is that sometimes the ads function as an invitation to enter the labor force of these firms by joining as agents; a common strategy seems to be using “real” agents, who are Indian American, and weaving a narrative of success, trust, and security through them.
My sense is that there is a lot going on with these neo-multicultural strategies of advertising that cannot be read only in terms of commodification and stereotyping, although they certainly persist. Robert Stam and Ella Shohat’s critique of corporate managed forms of Benetton-pluralism is certainly relevant to the branding of the premium Asian American consumer. At the same time, if we think of these efforts by “American” entities to access “Indian American” spaces of culture, capital labor, and belonging as symptomatic of emergent modalities of the transnational, might we be able to see subtle shifts in the discourse of multiculturalism in the contemporary moment? In other words, it is certainly problematic when companies are framing their approach along the lines of “ethnic segmentation.” But then again, when their cultural production of the “ethnicity” of their target audience involves mediating discourses of travel, mobility, transnational lifestyles, and popular cultures, does that resignify the meaning of “cultural difference” in a way that resists fixing? I am not entirely sure, but I think it is an idea worth pursuing. I hope to make my next entry more about the ads themselves so that some of these ideas can be revisited.