How Honda Tackles Race in a 30 Second Commercial

If you speak another language, you can attest to the benefits of bilingualism in various situations. 

In a recent Honda commercial, a young couple speaks Chinese to each other at a car dealership about how badly they want the sedan in front of them.  They assume that the salesman can’t understand, but – surprise – he can speak Mandarin too and was following their dialogue the entire time.

The commercial is light, witty, and unexpected.  But race is a tricky topic for a Fortune Global 500 company to cover in 30 seconds.  How does this commercial take the risk and succeed?

1. The ad is likely regional and targeted. 

The car dealership that created this video is based in southern California, where there are twice as many Asian-Americans as the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  The audience for the commercial is more likely to relate to the humor on a personal level rather than feel alienated by it.  This ad might not have been as relevant in, say, Arkansas. 

2. The minorities are not portrayed in a stereotypical way.

The actors in the commercial are representative of current day, real-life “hyphenated” minorities.  They speak fluent English.  They look like they shop at the Gap.  They are a normal couple in their early thirties shopping for a car together. 

In fact, besides the foreign language, the commercial downplays race in other ways and avoids the stereotypes of Asians in pop culture.  There are no gangsters from the Fast and the Furious, no “oriental” China dolls, no emasculated Asian men, no nerdy test takers.

The balance in the ad keeps the concept light-hearted as opposed to jarring.

3. It has a feel-good ending.

Even in 30 seconds, the storyline has two surprising twists.  Although the male customer tells his partner (in Chinese) not to appear too eager about the car, he ends up being so excited that he can’t help but agree to purchase on the spot.

The second twist is that the car salesman, a white guy, also speaks Chinese.  Who’s telling the joke now?  This is  important because it restores a sense of balance that was previously offset because it seemed like the foreign-language speakers had an advantage. 

There are often ads in different languages intended for various demographics, but rarely are there ads meant for mainstream American media that feature Asian-Americans as the main characters.  

Overall though, this ad isn’t about race relations.  The commercial does what every ad is intended to do: make the company look good. 

Here, Honda looks great because the message is that you can try all kinds of ways to resist a Honda, but you should just give in because you won’t be able to.  And based on the quick-witted salesperson in the ad, the company is saying that we’re smart, we’re clever, and we’re competent – so trust us to make a solid car.

Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/winniekao