Yes, It Matters That #AAPI Bloggers were Left Off The #FreshOffTheBoat Bus

A photo uploaded to Instagram of bloggers boarding the #ABCTVEvent bus.
A photo uploaded to Instagram of bloggers boarding the #ABCTVEvent bus, which included a showing, and cast meet-and-greet for “Fresh Off The Boat”.

Fresh Off The Boat‘s debut this week has rocked the Asian American blogosphere to largely rave reviews (read my review). It has spawned hundreds of thinkpieces, many written by Asian American television viewers ecstatic to see themselves, their families, and their experiences included, for one of the first times, among the lineup of primetime television sitcoms.

Sadly, it seems that at Disney-ABC, this new commitment to diversity extends only as far as investing in a single 22 minute television show; when it comes to marketing and community outreach, the corporate powers-that-be have been seriously dropping the ball.

A week before Fresh Off The Boat premiered, some (former) marketing intern tweeted a bizarrely offensive graphic depicting stereotypical caricatures of people of colour beneath the headline “we’re all a little fresh off the boat” (picture after the jump).

Now, the folks behind Fresh Off The Boat are in hot water again for another marketing misstep related to the sitcom. Last month, Disney-ABC (the parent television group that oversees both Disney and ABC Television products) invited a bunch of people to an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles (#ABCTVEvent) to preview and meet the cast and crew of five shows and movies — including a number that intersect with the identities of communities of colours such as Fresh Off The BoatBig Hero 6, and McFarland USA. 24 bloggers — many of them mommy bloggers — were flown out to participate in this invitation-only junket; not a single one was Asian American.

A since-deleted tweet from the marketing campaign behind "Fresh Off The Boat".
A since-deleted tweet from the marketing campaign behind “Fresh Off The Boat”.

This might not seem like that big of a deal, but it is. Fresh Off The Boat and Big Hero 6 have been overwhelmingly influential for the Asian American community, and for individual Asian Americans; many are getting a sense of mainstream inclusion for the first time through these TV shows and films.

Yet, the exclusion (deliberate or otherwise) of Asian American bloggers from this junket suggests that even if Disney/ABC has decided to invest in more diverse programming, they still aren’t interested in taking the step that matters: building a meaningful relationship between their company and the community whose cultural experiences and icons they are now tasked with representing on the big (and small) screen.

I’m under no illusions: Disney-ABC and other major media corporations don’t speak in the language of social justice. As important as Fresh Off The Boat is for Asian American viewers, companies like Disney-ABC aren’t prioritizing the advancement of our identities. They are prioritizing our market share and our spending dollars. So here’s why this should matter to Disney-ABC, in terms that should make sense.

Asian Americans are the fastest growing consumer market in America. We make up 6% of the national population, but a larger share of the much-coveted 18-49 demographic. Our median household income is higher than the national average (with the important caveat that this statistic hides the many AAPIs who are economically struggling), we spend on average 20% more than the average American household, and consequently we as a community wield over $700 billion in buying power (a power projected by Nielsen to increase to a trillion in the next two years).

Nielsen also reports that Asian Americans are among the most-connected of any community of consumers — more of us have laptops, cell phones, and wireless broadband. We spend significantly more time online consuming — and creating — digital content than the average American, consequently the number of Asian and Asian American-focused digital media outlets has expanded by an astonishing 1115% in the last decade. From Nielsen:

Asian Americans spend an average of 80 hours surfing the internet each month. They view 3600 web pages monthly, which is 1000 pages higher than any other demographic group.

If you were looking for a bunch of social media savvy consumers, you could do a lot worse than tapping the already Facebook-obsessed and blogging Asian American market.

There’s an easy way to capitalize on this virtually untapped market: create programming that addresses this community and engage those viewers with earnestness. There’s also an easy way to lose this market: insult them or ignore them. In regards to the latter, excluding Asian American bloggers accomplishes both.

The point of a blogger junket like #ABCTVEvent is to create word-of-mouth interest through social media by captivating influential bloggers and giving them exclusive access to consumer goods, and then hoping that these bloggers tweet their followers with an endorsement to build some digital excitement around a particular product. The 24 bloggers invited to the #ABCTVEvent trip all appear to be bloggers with fairly large (i.e. 10,000 or more) Twitter followers and enough spare time to take a 5-day trip in the middle of the week to California to rub elbows with some actors.

Honestly, I don’t begrudge these bloggers this opportunity. The #BloggerLife is a difficult one, as my friend Casey Palmer writes about in his 2014 wrap-up post where he talks about backing off from the endless pursuit of blogger junkets and free swag. To participate in this world is to work tirelessly and volunteer one’s spare time to becoming a largely unpaid advertiser in a much larger marketing machine in a marketplace that deals in the currency of hashtags and hype.

My hats off to the 24 bloggers who have worked hard to build their personal brand and earn themselves a trip to meet Kevin Costner. I couldn’t do it, and more importantly, I don’t want to.

But what’s important here is that these junkets are a critical piece of how most contemporary consumer products are marketed. They are an essential framework through which corporations build a marketing relationship with their associated demographics. Companies bank on bloggers to talk — intimately and personally — about why they endorse whatever product is being sold to whatever communities they belong to. Those endorsements are worth more to the company than whatever free swag they give out. Given this advertising model, can you imagine any conceivable reason why excluding an Asian American blogger from the opportunity to develop a personal experience with Fresh Off The Boat, and to subsequently excite other Asian American viewers with tales of that experience, would be a desirable thing?

Furthermore, these junkets aren’t one-way streets. They are one of the (very few) avenues through which everyday consumers can meet the people who create the programming that impacts them and their lives, and give feedback on that media. Bloggers who get a chance to interview the cast and crew of Fresh Off The Boat can offer input about what does — and doesn’t — work about the show, its premise, and the advertising campaign surrounding it. Maybe these messages will make it to the powers-that-be at Disney-ABC and maybe they won’t; but for the 24 bloggers #ABCTVEvent, none of whom are Asian American, the possibility exists that they aren’t just going to be low-budget street-level advertisers, but marginally influential sculptors in these projects and other forthcoming ones.

freshofftheboat05

The point here isn’t that I — or anyone else — wants a free trip to Los Angeles. I personally don’t blog for swag; I would’ve turned this trip down had I been offered it (and if anyone from Disney-ABC is reading this post, do not offer it to me; I will give you names of people who could actually use such an opportunity). The point here is that these junkets are how major corporations acknowledge and build relationships with influential voices within their target demographic. The choice to exclude Asian American bloggers from #ABCTVEvent was a clear message: building a relationship with Asian American consumers doesn’t matter. The Asian American consumer is, effectively, rendered invisible and therefore unimportant.

My friend Grace Hwang Lynch (HapaMama.com) has written a compelling open letter asking for accountability from Disney-ABC for why not a single Asian American blogger was invited to participate in this junket; Asian Americans have joined her cry by blogging (at The Napkin HoarderI’m Not The Nanny and Kirida) and tweeting to the hashtag #AAPIVoices to highlight the vibrant community of AAPI bloggers that are too often overlooked and marginalized by the mainstream.

What most frustrates me about the exclusion of AAPI voices from the Fresh Off The Boat bus is not just how Disney-ABC failed to prioritize outreach to Asian American bloggers, but also how some bloggers have reacted defensively to the lack of diversity among those who were invited to attend this special event. Writes a commenter:

These comments sound so bitter and resentful, and the post was not well researched because to me, you just ended up sounding upset that you weren’t invited.

I remember a time when female bloggers were rare, and we struggled to be heard in a blogosphere that was predominantly male-dominated. Today, however, appears to be the age of the female blogger. We have, to some degree, arrived; or, at least, some of us have.

Given that some of us are breaking through barriers towards access, while others are still trapped, isn’t there a responsibility among women — including women bloggers — to be aware of our own privilege? Shouldn’t we be always reminding ourselves that anti-racist work is also feminist work? Shouldn’t we, as women, be lifting as we climb?

When these bloggers — most of them non-POC women — boarded a bus destined to an event involving three (out of five) projects intersecting with communities of colour, why didn’t someone step back and ask what was up? Why didn’t anyone ask the organizers why not one — even just one — of the over a hundred Asian American bloggers who are currently active was contacted to participate, particularly in an event that highlighted a TV show and a movie both of profound importance to the Asian American community? Statistically speaking, to achieve just parity with current American racial demographics, at least one (well, one and a half) blogger should’ve been Asian American; are we really to believe that not a single Asian American (mommy) blogger willing to fly across the country and meet Ryan Potter and Daniel Henney of Big Hero 6 could be found? And, don’t tell me those bloggers don’t exist; they do.

The comment I’ve excerpted above is right; we weren’t invited. That’s the point. Being invited to a 5-day free trip to speak with the teams behind major mainstream movies and television shows is a form of privilege; one that Asian Americans find themselves time and time again excluded from, even when the event is related to a show about us and our identity. We need the people who were invited to advocate for us, not attack us and dismiss us for being frustrated that we are being so casually disregarded and rendered invisible.

This isn’t about free swag. This is about being acknowledged and supported — by mainstream media but more importantly by our self-described female allies, the latter of whom — unlike us — have the chance to get their foot in the door and be heard.

If Disney-ABC is going to sell our stories onscreen, the very least they could do is invite us in the room.

Oh, and one more thing. To this commenter: being the parent of an Asian child does not make you suddenly and magically Asian American. Just sayin’.

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