Making sense of Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl ad: A “discourse identity” approach

During the Super Bowl, viewers are socialized into understanding that the spectacle is not just the game itself, but also the multi-million dollar ad spots during the commercial breaks.  This year the most notorious of these was Michigan GOP Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s racially charged political ad, what ABCNews referred to as “the slur heard ‘round the country.’”

The scene opens with the music of a gong, as an Asian woman in a conical bamboo hat rides her bicycle down a dirt path, alongside a field of rice paddies.  She stops, looking into the camera as she smiles, and says in mock broken English “Debbie spend so much American money.  You borrow more and more, from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie ‘Spend It Now!’” The scene cuts to Hoekstra, saying “I think this race is between Debbie ‘spend it now’ and Pete ‘spend it not.’  I’m Pete ‘spend it not’ and I approve this message.”

The media backlash was almost immediate, characterizing Hoekstra as a “racist,” criticizing him for capitalizing on Asian stereotypes and perpetuating xenophobic sentiments toward China.  Yet he was not the only one to receive the fury of media attention – many wondered who this young Asian actress was and why she would subject herself to such degradation.  In the end, Hoekstra took the ad off of his website and somewhat sarcastically apologized, stating that any insensitivity was intended for the “liberal left and their reckless spending, not the Asian community.”  The actress, Lisa Chang, was shamed into issuing a public apology, where she expressed regret “for any pain that the character [she] portrayed brought to [her] communities.”  The Hoekstra ad and ensuing media fiasco raise important questions, such as:

1)  What content (spoken, written, or audio-visual) is appropriate (or not) in the context of campaign or attack advertisements; if inappropriate, who receives the blame (or not), and most importantly, who gets to decide these things in the first place?

2)  Why did some viewers, including pundits, journalists, and other “experts,” find it more appalling for the Asian actress to participate in the advertisement than Hoekstra?

3)  Why were these two the only ones punished by the media for their involvement, when an entire team (including writers, producers, camera operators) was responsible for the production as a whole?

In Scollon’s 1996 article “Discourse identity,” he makes a compelling case for understanding news media through the careful breakdown and analysis of discourse identities (i.e. the various combinations of social-interactive and production-reception roles). Taking examples of Hong Kong print media as case studies, Scollon advocates the “discourse identity” approach as a method for unraveling the complexity of roles we take in discourse.  The approach is particularly useful in cases of mismatched identities, he argues, because we are perceived negatively when our discourse identity is incongruent with our expected social role.  Moving forward I will address the questions above by beginning this process of unraveling the discourse and social identities of the actors involved in the Hoekstra ad to show the negative consequences of mismatched identity.

A visual semiotic approach would certainly confirm the critiques of Hoekstra’s ad – the gong in the introduction, the conical hat, the actress’s broken English, and the discourse on jobs being sent oversees all make use of stereotypes about Asians and Chinese, in particular.  In other words, that the ad capitalized on cultural stereotypes through visual and discursive means is clear.  But who is held responsible and by whom?

Pete Hoekstra Lisa Chang Media critics
Social-interactive role Framer, player Player Framers? Players? Observers?
Production-reception role Author, animator, principal Animator Judge

Lisa Chang, despite being merely a player in the spectacle who animates a stereotyping and racist discourse, is perceived negatively.  To use Scollon’s terminology, this to me insinuates that there is a perceived mismatch in identities – visibly as an Asian(-American) woman, Chang is expected not to be a player in a racially degrading discourse.  As a consequence, media critics treat her as though she were author, animator and principal – considering criticism for negatively portraying her “community.”   Hoekstra, on the other hand, explicitly approved the ad’s message but is judged similarly to Chang.  This doesn’t take into account that he is a player and framer of the discourse, in addition to being author, animator and principal of the discourse. Furthermore, there was little to no attention paid to the many others who contributed to the production of the ad by media critics.  Detangling the discourse identities of the two faces in the ad draws attention to the many others responsible for its creation.

Lastly, the media plays several important roles in this discourse: 1) in the reception role as judges, and 2) in the social-interactive as potential framers, players and/or observers.  Further analysis might analyze the social-interactive roles media networks or organizations adopt in relation to a bit of “news.” For example, do they air the ad without participating in the discourse (players) or do they take a position on the discourse (framers)?  Does Fox editorialize certain topics more than MSNBC, and vice versa?  What about a racial-justice-oriented publication like ColorlinesWhat role can the media play in maintaining or changing racist discourses?