Anti-Asian Harassment Is Surging. Can Ads and Hashtags Help?

By Tiffany Hsu

With more than 2,000 incidents and little action from the federal government, efforts to curtail pandemic-related racism have fallen to P.S.A.s and social media campaigns.

A new public service ad from the Ad Council and the writer Alan Yang is focused on pandemic-related harassment of Asians.
A new public service ad from the Ad Council and the writer Alan Yang is focused on pandemic-related harassment of Asians.Credit...The Ad Council
Tiffany Hsu

A new public service announcement makes a point that federal leaders have largely overlooked: Asian-Americans are facing a surge of harassment linked to fears about the coronavirus pandemic.

The spot, which debuted on Tuesday, includes testimonials from a firefighter, a nurse, a driver, an artist, the celebrity chef Melissa King and others, who describe being told to “go back to China” or having people spit in their direction.

The somber ad, produced by the nonprofit Advertising Council with help from the Emmy-winning writer Alan Yang, ends with a request: “Fight the virus. Fight the bias.”

Anxiety about the novel respiratory virus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, has fueled xenophobia and bigotry toward people of Asian descent. A coalition of civil rights groups recorded more than 2,100 incidents in 15 weeks; the New York City Commission on Human Rights recently described a “sharp increase in instances of hostility and harassment.” A list of recent cases compiled by the Anti-Defamation League chronicles “surging reports of xenophobic and racist incidents,” including Asian-owned stores defaced with racist graffiti, video chats disrupted by anti-Asian comments and people being beaten or denied entry to businesses.

President Trump has repeatedly described the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and, in recent weeks, as “kung flu,” despite saying publicly that it is “very important that we totally protect our Asian-American community in the United States” and that the pandemic is “not their fault in any way.” Inflammatory statements from leaders can exacerbate racist behavior, according to researchers and civil rights leaders.

The fight against pandemic-related harassment of Asian-Americans has largely fallen to civil rights groups, marketing agencies, social media accounts and nonprofit organizations, which have promoted hashtags like #IAmNotCovid19, #RacismIsAVirus, #HealthNotHate and #MakeNoiseToday.

Asiancy, an affinity group of the Wieden + Kennedy Portland ad agency, posted a video in May about the repercussions of recent anti-Asian discrimination. The marketing firm IW Group recruited actors, musicians, designers and influencers to participate in the #WashTheHate campaign.

The Ad Council, which also introduced a face mask initiative with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York this month, will roll out the new anti-harassment campaign online and on television.

The issue of racism toward Asians hit “very close to home,” said Mr. Yang, who is known for popular shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None.” He had just finished directing and publicizing “Tigertail,” a family drama made for Netflix featuring a nearly all-Asian and Asian-American cast.

ImageThe Ad Council’s anti-harassment ad as it appears on mobile devices.
The Ad Council’s anti-harassment ad as it appears on mobile devices.Credit...The Ad Council

One of the lead “Tigertail” actors, Tzi Ma, was at a Whole Foods store in Pasadena, Calif., early in the outbreak when a man approached in a car and told Mr. Ma that he “should be quarantined,” Mr. Yang said. Later, during an interview with Mr. Yang on Instagram Live, viewers left comments saying he and the interviewer, an Asian man, were the same person.

“This wasn’t an abstract idea to me, something theoretical,” Mr. Yang said. “I knew people this was happening to.” He described the production process as “an emotionally fraught time,” when he toggled between overseeing the shoot over Zoom and attending Black Lives Matter protests.

The result, Mr. Yang said, is a rare example of a nationwide marketing effort focused on Asian issues, represented by Asian-Americans from a wide range of backgrounds.

“It’s very meaningful to me,” he said. “I never saw this growing up.”

In a Pew Research Center survey, 58 percent of English-speaking Asian-American adults said expressions of racist or insensitive views about Asians had become more common since the pandemic began. More than 30 percent said they had encountered slurs or racist jokes in recent months, and 26 percent said they feared being threatened or physically attacked because of their race — a higher percentage than for Black, white and Hispanic adults.

But many Americans, including several non-Asian members of the production team working on the Ad Council’s campaign, have been unaware of pandemic-related racism, Mr. Yang said.

Steven Moy, the chief executive of the Barbarian ad agency, said campaigns like this one were “a good starting point.”

“I don’t know if this is enough, or how effective it will be, but let’s do baby steps and create awareness,” he said. “I have not seen enough of this — we should do more.”