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Automated Programs Fill Asian American Websites With Sex Ads

January 27, 2010

TheFighting44s.com, a self-proclaimed “nexus for intelligent and compelling discussion on all matters relating to the Asian American experience” had a solid following for its cultural criticism and political commentary. But in a weird exercise of cognitive dissonance last year, right above feature articles titled “Orientalism in the media” and “The (Asian-American) Feminist Mystique” were banner ads that read: “Date Sexy Asians,” with seductive pictures of “1,000s of girls” to boot.

Readers responded on the website’s message board. One user, THX1138, wrote: “It would be ironic if a [sic] Asian American empowerment website were intentionally promoting these glorified Orientalist pimps hyping their wares like ‘Hookup With Sexy Asians’ or ‘Meet Sexy Asian Women Online.' "

Dialectic, editor in chief of TheFighting44s.com, told Hyphen the site had “no moral qualm” with the ads because they promoted interracial dating.

“White male-Asian female pairings are just fine and dandy, as is the ability to look anywhere you want for a significant other, spouse, lover. We don’t begrudge anyone [for] these things, and to describe these sites as ‘trafficking,’ ‘exploitative’ or ‘objectifying’ and automatically considering these sites to be immoral is simplistic, and I might add, naive,” he said.

The conflict reveals a fundamental problem for Asian American bloggers who monetize their content with ads. The Internet, at its best, has served as a grassroots medium for ethnic Zeitgeist in an otherwise marginalized media landscape. But at its worst, it has helped transfer the historical legacy of stereotypical ads in traditional outlets over to the digital age. For many Asian American writers who blog about cultural infractions like fetishism and exoticism, their commentary is often flanked by the very material they are criticizing.

The culprits are auto-generated advertisement programs like Google AdSense, where users install a code on their website and receive money every time a reader clicks an ad.

For maximum revenue, the program is designed to promote material that is relevant to a website’s content. For example, a blog on environmental technology might provide a link to solar panels. But for Asian American bloggers, the slightest mention of Asian-related content promotes links to dating websites or mail-order bride services.

According to Google.com, the ads go under both a human and computer review process to ensure suitability. “Our machines are very good at the matching process, but there are still a few cases where their definition of relevance differs from our human definition of relevance. In these few cases, the system might end up serving ads that don’t seem immediately relevant to users,” wrote Woojin Kim, AdSense product manager, on Inside AdSense blog.

Users can also filter ads, but that only provides a bandage solution to the larger problem — that the “Asian” keyword is erroneously associated with sexual advertisements. (Search “Asian women” on any engine and see what happens.)

TheFighting44s.com was retired by its staff this April due to other personal commitments, Dialectic said, and added revenue was not a factor in ceasing publication. Still, the administrators were aware of reader criticism and had trouble finding germane ads when the site was active. The site’s publisher, Lopan, said he contacted Google but was told the ads were a result of the site’s content and out of its control. Soon after, he tried blocking the ads on his own by placing domain names on an exclusion list, but saw little success.

“No matter how many advertisers we added to this list, there were 100 more that would take their place. We eventually stopped filtering advertisers altogether, as it was simply too time consuming,” Lopan said.

The problem has left many Asian American bloggers in a bind. While most write out of a labor of love, running a website costs money. The writers are faced with the choice of using ads to defray maintenance costs, but risk alienating readers by compromising their content. Or, they can buck promotions and pay out of their own pockets to run their website, which most have chosen to do. Even so, some bloggers have found that running ads is not worth the trouble if it conflicts with their writing.

“It’s like selling out for $2,” said Jen Wang, who runs Disgrasian.com with Diana Nguyen. When the two started their tongue-in-cheek blog on race, pop culture and politics in 2007, they installed Google AdSense and immediately encountered problems.

“It was very typical stuff like ‘meet sexy Asian women,’ ‘date hot Chinese women’ or ‘beautiful Asian escorts,’ ” Wang said. “It’s like ‘Asian girl’ is synonymous with: ‘sex,’ ‘porn,’ ‘escort,’ ‘hooker.’ ”

Wang and Nguyen nixed the ads in a matter of days. “We knew that sort of subject matter was definitely on our hit list. It seemed really incongruous with the kind of stuff we were writing,” Nguyen said.

The advertisements tie into the larger issue of sexual slavery and human trafficking in third world countries. The hypersexual, feminine, docile perceptions of Asian women in the ads have a historical precedent in colonialism, according to David K. Song, an adjunct professor at California State University, Northridge, who teaches a class on new Asian American media and has been following the proliferation of Asian American bloggers.

“This is actually nothing new, it’s just taken a different form,” Song said. “The thing about most of these love, sex, companionship-peddling, English-language ads is that despite their appearance on APA-related sites, the majority of them don’t seem catered to a specific Asian [American] demographic.”

Song said that part of the reason why these ads pop up is that Asian Americans lack the statistics or presence to constitute their own marketing niche. With no specific product placement, the sexual content serves as de facto ad material, he said.

Phil Yu of AngryAsianMan.com has taken a hands-on approach in selecting advertisements for his website and echoed the same sentiment. “People aren’t advertising stuff that’s related to Asian American content,” Yu said. “When it comes to motherhood blogs, it’s a really easy fit. There’s tons of things that get automatically generated out of the topics of those blogs. I don’t think there’s anything inherently like that for Asian American blogs.”

For someone who uses the word “Asian” a lot on his website, Yu didn’t want to let the “Google gods” dictate his ads. Instead, his associate, John Chung, has been selling ads on his behalf. In February, Chung created the Asian American Ad Network to fill the demographic void.

“I also followed several other blogs and knew their numbers were too low to attract advertisers, but unified, the network can produce a respectable amount of impressions,” Chung said.

The ad collective is an alternative to auto-generated programs and has been a boon for bloggers and advertisers alike. The network comprises 12 Asian American websites, including Angry Asian Man and Disgrasian (Hyphen was once part of the network). Marketers can drool over the potential for tapping into an overlooked but lucrative market. According to a report released by the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, the purchasing power of Asian Americans totaled $509 billion last year, an amount larger than Sweden’s gross domestic product in 2008.

Bloggers can also work with Chung to determine what content to promote. A quick glance at the websites he works with now show ads for automobiles, movie trailers and clothing websites. The network is a step forward, but the sexual content still remains. However, Song offers some sage advice when surfing the web: “You should always ask yourself, who is this ad actually for?”

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