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Lack of Data, Lot of Promise For Asian-American Media

Asked about the state of the Asian-American television advertising market, more than a dozen media and marketing executives provided sharply different opinions.

“Definitely flatline,” answered Elcid Choi, executive vice president and director of new client development for the multicultural agency GlobalHue.

“Nominal growth,” said Michael Sherman general manager of KTSF, a broadcast station in San Francisco that transmits foreign-language programming for Asians.

“Very strong growth,” said Saul Gitlin, executive vice president of strategic marketing services at Kang & Lee, one of the larger Asian-American advertising agencies.

But no one suggested the market was shrinking.

The different opinions point to perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Asian-American media industry — the dearth of data. Only one media outlet subscribes to Nielsen Media Research ratings. And no firm collects industry-wide information about how much brands are spending on television advertising.

Still, there is widespread agreement about the attractiveness and potential of the Asian-American market. In September, the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth released a report estimating Asian-American buying power at $427 billion.

This represents an almost 60% jump since 2000. According to the Census Bureau, the Asian-American population is approximately 11.9 million. This represents a 20% increase between 2000 and 2004. Almost half have a bachelor's or graduate degree and a little under a fifth earn over $75,000 a year.

“It makes strong business sense to target Asian-Americans,” said Joe Min, account manager for Toyota at Long Beach, Calif.-based Asian-American ad agency interTrend. The automotive industry apparently agrees and is an active advertiser in the market.

Chrysler just recently re­entered the Asian-American advertising market with a television campaign promoting its Sebring model. It is the first time Chrysler has advertised a new model simultaneously in the general and Asian-American markets. The campaign began in late November and will run through the first quarter of next year.

The buy concentrated on Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco through a mix of broadcast and pay television. The campaign actually consists of spots in three languages — Chinese, Korean and then English for Indian-Americans. The creative is the same, albeit with different actors and voiceovers. English was used to reach out to Indians from all different regions.

According to Holly Scerbo communications manager for Chrysler Marketing, “The demographics make it attractive and challenging,”

Sherman agrees the market is very attractive. KTSF, which broadcasts Chinese-language programming in primetime, including local newscasts in Mandarin and Cantonese, is the only Asian station or network that subscribes to Nielsen. In primetime, it is often San Francisco's second most-watched foreign-language station, behind Univision but ahead of Telemundo.

Last year, following the January 2005 move to Nielsen, Sherman saw a big jump in advertising dollars. But this year has brought in little additional revenue. A little over half of the station's advertising comes from national accounts.

“Over time the advertising community has come on board, although not as much as I would have thought,” said Sherman. “People's understanding of the market is not that great. A lot of our work goes into explaining the Asian market.”

Partly, that is a reflection of the inherent complexity of the Asian-American market. The largest immigrant groups are from China, India and Korea. English-language competency varies from near universal for Indian immigrants to significantly less for Chinese immigrants.

Aside from KTSF, there are only a handful of local stations and no national broadcast network transmitting Asian programming full-time. The stations typically carry programming from several countries, with primetime going to the largest immigrant group in the area — Chinese in San Francisco and Korean in Los Angeles.

In addition, there are a few dozen pay television networks that feature original-language programming imported from Asia. Two networks, AZN and ImaginAsian TV, air a significant amount of programming that is either in English or subtitled.

There are also three MTV Channels that have launched over the past two years: MTVK, for Korean-Americans; MTV Chi, targeting Chinese-Americans; and MTV Desi, for South Asian-Americans. The VJs speak primarily in English as they introduce Asian music videos.

National advertising on these stations and networks comes in a range of languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Tagalog, as well as English. Although there is no industry-wide breakdown, a majority of Asian-American advertising appears to be in foreign languages.

“We know that overall the majority of Asians are immigrants and show a preference for their own language,” Gitlin said.

Most of the advertising on The Filipino Channel is in Tagalog and comes from local businesses. Western Union and California utility PG&E have both placed commercials in Tagalog. “Over the last three years, mainstream advertisers have begun recognizing us,” said Jun Del Rosario, a product manager of TFC's Manila-based parent company ABS-CBN.

The network has some 200,000 subscribers via cable systems and DirecTV.

Thomas Tseng, co-founder and principal of multicultural market research firm New American Dimensions, argues there is too much emphasis on Asian-language media. “There is a slew of media reaching that immigrant but there aren't a lot of media reaching the American generation,” he said. Tseng pointed to surveys his firm conducted this summer, which find a sharp drop in Asian-language fluency by the second generation.

“When you look at a lot of the in-language media they tend to reach an older demographic,” said Thomas Pyun vice president of advertising sales at ImaginAsian Entertainment.

Bill Georges, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Comcast-owned AZN, recommends first-time advertisers in the Asian-American market begin with English-language ads. Not to reach young U.S.-born Asian-Americans, but to reach the largest number of viewers possible.

“For too many years we had advertisers believing they were doing 'Asian marketing' when what they were doing was Chinese marketing in San Francisco or Korean marketing in L.A.,” he said. “The English-language is a way to aggregate the Asian audience.” Georges projects his ad sales revenues will increase some 75% next year.

The large number of networks for a relatively small audience that is fragmented by language combined with modest demand from national brands and little ratings information means that advertising costs are comparatively low.

“Your production costs a lot of times outweigh the media outlets. You are spending $100,000 on a spot and spending $75,000 on media,” said Global Hue's Choi. Spending more money to produce a commercial than to run it is practically unheard of in other markets.

While the lack of ratings is an oddity in the market, it apparently is not deterring committed advertisers.

“We take a holistic view of how we are reaching our audience,” Honda manager of emerging markets advertising Barbara Ponce said. “If Nielsen isn't available, we will look at other metrics while not closing the door”.

Kang & Lee's Gitlin said those brands that make investments now in Asian-American advertising will reap tangible benefits. “The future is very bright. By the time we hit 2010, it is just going to accelerate,” said Gitlin. “Asian marketing is going to shift from being an option to being an imperative opportunity.”