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The Other Kind of Racism

At the verge of sounding overly sarcastic, I must say I am surprised to touch on this topic at this point of the 21st century. Humanity is busy. We have been spending our time dealing with nature, fighting over one another, constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing stereotypes. It is a vicious cycle that after thousands of years, still we cannot manage to let go of our prejudices when it comes to differences in our colors.

For my nineteen years on earth, my permeable brain cells have absorbed the concept of racism much more lightly than it should. In my blurry definition, racism is the unfair discrimination towards people just because of their skin colors. And my childlike spirit also decided within my bubble to believe that it is something happening far away from Vietnam. That was until my twentieth year, the move across the world bursted my bubbly understanding of the problem as I realised my country has been discriminating itself.

I often encounter the term ‘racism’ as a negative treatment towards others, yet through our own media, I have learnt the way we quietly portray the Western image as superior to ourselves and accept our place in the racial hierarchy by following the trend. The racist connotation has been dripping into my subconscious so subtly since my childhood that I just consumed without questioning. Naturally, when the scary reality dawned on me, I first dissected it in my field, representation of Westerners in advertising.

The Past Built The Present

The human brain has the habit of spotting differences and we tend to categorise it and put it into boxes with labels. Biologically, racial classifications should just be a harmless tool to describe origins and physical differences. But the years into history have led us to various constructions of wealth and social status associated with these racial classes (Gao, Xu & Kim 2013).

Vietnam has a rich history fighting against Western military powers. The West’s colonisation back in the day has implanted a racial hierarchy which since, has been heavily enhanced and reinforced by Western media domination (Gao, Xu & Kim 2013). Since the 80s, the globalising economy has become more apparent and the term “global marketing strategy” was introduced (Zhou & Belk 2004). In the meantime, global advertising has been growing in its best attempt to target middle-class consumers across many cultures including ours.

As a symbol for power and superior lifestyle, over the years, not only do Westerners subconsciously believe that they are superior, the idea is also normalised and paradoxically legitimised within non-Western like myself.

How Do We Think?

As a country, we opened ourselves to the world not so long ago. The sudden overexposure makes us excited to meet things we have been considered strange, mysterious and superior (Nikolic 2019). That mindset leads to racist preferences and biased perception towards anything Western-related.

Many Vietnamese tend to doubt and criticise our own productions. On the contrary, we prioritise and are willing to spend at much higher prices in a blind belief that imported goods have better quality, regardless of category (mobile phones, cars, clothings and etc). From farmers, blue-collar workers, professionals, celebrities to officials, anything remotely attached to foreigners would become their first choice (Nikolic 2019).

Vietnam belongs to a rapidly developing region of the world where the rapid buildup of wealth correlates with conspicuous consumption. Our spending is largely driven by the tendency to show off economic and social status (Zhou & Belk 2004). We consume on the mere basis of brand values and what it says about our identity. Today, the foreign appeal of a product adds to its value (Chang 2008). We have an endless desire to consume what the superior cultures have (Johansson 1999).

Selling The Understanding

Advertising is taking advantage of the target audience mindset to not only sell physical attributes but also identity. Presented with the current situation, advertisers are left with two routes, showing a local image so locals can identify with, or using a foreign face for ‘perceived’ added value (Johansson 1999). We made our choices.

The East Asian advertising market is accustomed to Western models, more specifically white, Caucasian models (Chang 2014). This overrepresentation has been the reality for decades, visible across myriad product categories regardless of origin. Vietnam does not fall out of this trend.

There is limited research on the effect of Western models in advertising, specifically in the Vietnamese market. However, advertisers still take their chances on this inexact science to amplify the effect of an advertisement. Based on the biased taste of Vietnamese, advertisers plant foreign appeals into advertisements with the intention to build trust and add brand values.

Perceived Social Status and Lifestyle

Knowing the absurdly racist perception, foreign models are employed to lend more status for the service or product (Zhou & Belk 2004). Advertisers make use of this fascination by saying consumption of these products equals the wealth and supposedly better lifestyles of foreigners. Principally in these examples are the perceived wealth and status of people who can afford to consume luxurious travel and leisure experience.

Adapted from VINPEARL (2016) - Vinpearl Resort TVC

Adapted from AsiaTravelTV (2012) - Hyatt Regency Resort Danang TVC

Identity and Social Image

The preference also rooted from the idea that foreign models can better portray images that would conflict with local cultural values (Zhou & Belk 2004). This is especially true in case of female models. There are certain topics and images that would be considered unacceptable if raised by Vietnamese models, namely sexual appeals. Whilst Asian women are made subordinate, it is more persuasive to use Caucasian women in Vietnamese advertisements to signify confidence, power and pleasure (Johansson 1999).

Adapted from QUẢNG CÁO VIỆT NAM (2020) - Close Up TVC

Perceived Quality and Trust

Toying on the blind belief in Westerners, advertisers continue to make use of their faces to artificially improve product quality. The most prominent examples have to mention the use of a ‘foreign doctor’, giving international qualifications to a milk product.

Adapted from Vinamilk (2019b) Dielac Alpha Gold IQ TVC

A Step Too Far

We got used to foreign faces on our product and unconditionally gave them the superior position.This spiral of overrepresentation is slowly getting out of hand with advertisers grabbing every chance they have to slap a foreign appeal to any product. It is now rather a desperate attempt to present and capitalise on a ‘perceived globalness’ of their products.

Adapted from Quảng Cáo Truyền Hình (2019) - Honda SH MODE TVC
Adapted from LE NOM (2019) - Vespa Primavera Yacht Club TVC

For example, this approach has been the prime formula in motorbike advertisements (Nguyen 2019). From using all foreigners to applying foreign male gaze on Vietnamese women to just randomly putting a foreign face in a Vietnamese group, are they trying too hard to prove a point here?

And if all of that is not enough, VinFast is an interesting case study as well. As the first brand to produce a ‘made in Vietnam’ car, its promoting approach on the facet was targeting patriotism and national pride. Nonetheless, under that surface, VinFast also could not quite let go of the racist consumer insight (Hieu Cong & Ha Phuong 2018).

The trust aspect was enhanced through promotion of the use of German technology. The fashion appeal was ensured through employment of an Italian designer (Nguyen 2018). Its first ever showcase was at the Paris Motor Show, not in Vietnam. And to top it all of, VinFast unsparingly endorsed David Beckham in this event (Advertising Vietnam 2018).

Exhibiting in Paris is ultimately a way to hit domestic media. The flashy world of international automotive knew all too well that VinFast had not yet made a real car for the mass market and the name was barely unknown compared to others at the event. However, it hit Vietnamese people who were curious about this event when they saw it headlining elsewhere.

Reproduced from Nguyen (2018)

The Vicious Cycle

Vietnamese consumers have the tendency to downplay domestic products and blindly build greater confidence and trust in the globalness of a brand. The trend of using Western models to influence product perception and indicate globalness is a vicious cycle in itself. This is an ethical dilemma for advertisers who put foreign appeals into products and try to sell them at the expense of reinforcing stereotypes and racism. At the end of the day, this phenomenon has the full potential to replicate itself timelessly unless we altogether commit to a change and truly prize trust into our own culture and people.


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AsiaTravelTV 2012, Hyatt Regency Resort Danang, Vietnam - TVC by, video recording, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

Chang, C 2008, ‘The Effectiveness of Using a Global Look in an Asian Market’, Journal of Advertising, June, vol. 48, no. 2, viewed 26 April 2020, WARC Database.

Chang, C 2014, ‘Why do Caucasian advertising models appeal to consumers in Taiwan? A cue-triggered value-expressive framework’, International Journal of Advertising, vol. 33, no. 4, viewed 26 April 2020, WARC Database.

Gao, Z, Xu, J & Kim, J 2013, ‘The Effect of Racial Cues on the Reader's Response to Advertisements’, Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics, June, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 510-32.

Hieu Cong & Ha Phuong 2018, ‘Cơn sốt truyền thông và thành công ban đầu của VinFast’, BrandsVietnam, 27 November, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

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Economy, vol. 2, no.3, pp. 377-388.

LE NOM 2019, Le Nom Vietnam - Quảng cáo Vespa Primavera Yacht Club, video recording, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

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Nguyen, T 2018, ‘Vinfast đã có được một chiến dịch truyền thông bài bản ở mức tốt. Nhưng…’, image, BrandsVietnam, 4 October, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

Nguyen, T 2019, ‘Tại sao cứ quảng cáo xe máy là phải “Tây”?’, Advertising Vietnam, 10 April, viewed 26 April 2020, <

Nikolic, M 2019, ‘Mê Tây sính ngoại’, VnExpress, 5 December, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

Quảng Cáo Truyền Hình 2019, Honda SH MODE mới với ABS- LÁI TỰ TIN, CHUẨN PHONG THÁI, video recording, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

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Vinamilk 2019a, OPTIMUM GOLD BỔ SUNG HMO – HẤP THU KHỎE, BÉ TINH ANH quảng cáo 30s, video recording, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

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VINPEARL 2016, VINPEARL TVC 2016, video recording, viewed 26 April 2020, <>.

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Zhou, N & Belk, R 2004, ‘Chinese Consumer Readings of Global and Local Advertising Appeals’, Journal of Advertising, Autumn, vol. 33, no.3, pp. 63-76.


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