Justin Lee Oliver Yeh Asian American MIT Students erased from Citicorp commercial JadeLuckClub

Erasing Asian American Achievement in Citibank Commercial by Replacing with Caucasian and African Americans UPDATED

Asian in America

Justin Lee Oliver Yeh Asian American MIT Students erased from Citicorp commercial JadeLuckClub

If you object to the erasing of Asian American Achievement by Citibank, please sign this petition:

Here’s the search result page for Citibank at Change.org.


I saw this on Racialicious, a great blog on the intersection of race and pop culture. It seems that Citibank made a commercial about a real story of two Asian American men used spit, chewing gum and sticks (ok just joking) to create a device to photograph near-space orbit.

“Two years ago, Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, two Asian-American MIT students, made international headlines when they used inexpensive, readily available materials to photograph near-space orbit on a $150 budget. They describe their project here, and received national media coverage.” Racialious 

Great story, right? Citibank apparently thinks so and makes a commercial that apes this story BUT recasts the story removing the Asian Americans for two Caucasians and an African American males. AND the African American takes a back seat to the Caucasians. See here:

And yet, there is persistent media coverage portraying Asian Americans as techy, even nerdy. What do you make of this commercial? Should Citibank be allowed to “rewrite” history into its own racial preferences that erases the true identities of this very real achievement? Please comment!

Would you protest to Citibank? If so, talk to her:

Executive Vice President, Global Marketing and Corporate Affairs, Citi
Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Women & Co., Citi

p.s. Wired: The $150 Edge-of-Space Camera: MIT Students Beat NASA on Beer-Money Budget

From cartoonist Gene Luen Yang who explains why he won’t be going to see the movie The Last Airbender.




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25 thoughts on “Erasing Asian American Achievement in Citibank Commercial by Replacing with Caucasian and African Americans UPDATED”

  1. From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network:

    Appears to be an ongoing problem. The movie about MIT card counters was also Euopeaneyezed.

    Posted by John

  2. From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network:

    Yes, the AA media watchers were non-plussed by the movie. There were those who pushed to boycott the film. I saw the Citibank commercial, but I was unaware that it was based on AA’s. To the media’s credit, I am seeing many more positively portrayed AA’s in the media (Amazing what Obama did for the media folk–suddenly there are African American pundits, when before Obama, virtually none existed. The spillover to other ethnic groups has been positive. The US Media, however, has a long way to go. The pressure on them for positive portrayal of non-Europeans must be kept high.

    Posted by John

  3. From my LinkedIn Group Voices of Asian Americans USA:

    I didn’t know about the story of Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh. They should have included at least one Asian American. Is there a form letter I could use to complain. Or petition site link would be more helpful for many others.

    Posted by Kwan

    1. To Kwan,
      I agree! Thanks for the information on setting up the petition. I have set it up (and thanks for signing it!). I am tweeting about it and I can’t believe that Citi won’t respond! Shameful on so many accounts!

  4. From my LinkedIn Asian American Leadership Network,

    Just FYI – The CEO of CitiGroup is Vidram Pandit, an Asian Indian. It would be interesting to know whether he is aware of the background of the ad. Also, since I am unsure whether Justin and Oliver gave permission to Citi to use their story, I posted a question on their YouTube site that they posted two years ago. We will see how this will unfold.

    Posted by Julia W.

  5. It’s interesting that you draw the conclusion that because there are three successful Asian Americans in one specific industry who graduated from Harvard that there are no discrimination issues for Asian Americans. The fact that it was much harder for those classmates to get into Harvard than any other ethnicity including Caucasian would lead me to ask why there aren’t more than just 3 that you know of in the upper echelons of Investment Banking.

    Here are the articles on that: http://jadeluckclub.com/category/asian-in-america/dont-id-as-asian-when-applying-to-college/

  6. Also, exactly how am I benefiting by “overhyping racial issues?” I am really curious to know. Political purposes? and Personal Gain? Please let me know when that will begin.

  7. Well, it appears that you are trying to be a political organizer of Asian-Americans. You seek political gain from racial issues.

    Posted by Jonathan L.

    From my LinkedIn Group Harvard University Alumni

  8. I actually have very little interest in politics. I started this blog (my 4th) to celebrate Asian American Creativity. Originally I was going to focus on Asian American Children’s Literature which is a new genre that is emerging but I expanded it so that Asian Americans don’t always push the usual career paths (doctor/lawyer/engineer/accountant). But then a few things started pissing me off when I discovered the whole admissions thing for Asian Americans. So, I will post on things that seem blatantly discriminatory, but no, I am not organizing for political gain around racial issues.

    In terms of career, I started a company with two friends out of the dorm at Harvard, called Aquent. It’s a multi-national staffing company that specializes in Marketing and Designers. So, no, I am not trying to distinguish myself for job opportunities on LinkedIn. In fact, I am not looking for a job, period. Ever. I like working for myself.

    I think the fact that I answer to no one enables me to bring issues up that Asian Americans are typically timid about. That Asian Americans have a higher bar at Ivy League colleges is something that I can complain about without people saying that I’m just bitter because I was rejected.

    Am I trying to fan the flames of racism? No, just point it out and I actually more interested in finding solutions.

    But thank you for your comments and participation. I think you help to create a meaningful discussion.

  9. Or, distinguish yourself in the job market by doing some sort of extra work on your own, like writing research reports, or something like that. I don’t think you will get very far by fanning the flames of racism on LinkedIN.

    Posted by Jonathan L.

    From my LinkedIn Group Harvard University Alumni

  10. At times like this, there are a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities in the world of investment banking. The big firms are running so lean that they leave lots of small companies without good investment banking services. If getting into investment banking is your goal, then you are better off approaching it from an entrepreneurial perspective than a racial perspective. IE: find a niche of small companies that need investment banking services, which are too small for the big firms, and go to work for them as a freelance investment banker.

    Posted by Jonathan L.

    From my LinkedIn Group Harvard University Alumni

  11. Mia– I applaud your shedding light on this very important issue. It is rather unfortunate that more attention hasn’t been given to this commercial and that your blog has been accused of unnecessarily playing “the race card.” As an African American female (and a graduate of both Harvard University and Georgetown Law)– I can certainly attest to the fact that success/achievement does not mean that racism is not an issue. Even in the era of Jim Crow, there were minority success stories. That still didn’t change the fact that there were separate drinking fountains, entrances, a lack of voting rights, etc.

    I would challenge everyone with “successful, minority friends” to ask them if they’ve ever felt the sting of racism. Ask them if they’re ever offended by the endless stereotyping on television. Many individuals assume that since their friends are doing fine, that they’ve never encountered racism or that racism is no longer an issue. These individuals are sadly mistaken.

    At every turn in my personal and professional journey– I’ve encountered and been hurt by racist ignorance. I do not intend to let it take away my opportunities for success, but it doesn’t make the issue non-existent.

    Again, thank you for sharing your blog.

    Posted by Jennifer

    From my LinkedIn Group Harvard University Alumni

    1. To Jennifer,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I think that it’s clear when race comes up, it is easy for the discussion to become heated. It’s the nature if the beast. Even when it degenerates, I think any discussion is better than none. Thank you so much for your supportive comment. They are few and far between but I am glad to know that SOMEONE understands where I am coming from.

  12. I didn’t know Citibank wrote history? And I also didn’t know knowledge of history was gained through commercials. Commercials are made to sell products. This isn’t the first time “history” has been changed to sell something.

    The creators probably put a variety of actors in front of test audiences and chose the ones with the most positive responses. If that’s the case, blame the “average” American for not finding two Asian-American men titillating.

  13. To Bob,
    So you are saying that if Citibank wanted to depict the first person walking on the moon as, say an African American woman, instead of Neil Armstrong, you are fine with that, as long as there is positive response to the ad agency’s “test audience?”

    And that the ad agency, if creatively incapable of coming up with a “story”, can crib from someone’s real achievement and 1) make it seem like Citibank had something to do with this and 2) recast it with chimps or anyone they please and that is fine.

    I think they should be sued.

    1. My short answer is yes.

      But the stories are utterly different. Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was a nationally televised event and was the first in history. The event depicted in the Citibank commercial was not a first, just simply something that has already been done before, but now with more ingenuity and for cheaper. These guys are awesome innovators, but these types of innovations happen all the time, and most go unnoticed.

      I don’t think the advertisers and Citibank are trying to take away from this accomplishment and the people who achieved it. Most likely, they saw something cool, wanted to make a commercial about it to sell their “product” and did. I don’t think they even considered race in this context. No matter if it was two black guys, two Native Americans, or three Russian women who did what the Asian guys did, the advertisers would have cast the same actors. This is not about discriminating against Asians. It’s about making a commercial. I think you are reaching to prove that this was discrimination.

      Let me also propose a hypothetical. What if the advertisers cast three Asian women instead? Would you still make the same complaint because they weren’t accurately portraying history? Would you still be so bold as to “think they should be sued?”

      1. To Bob,
        My point is that it is not right to take a true event and then embellish it in any way you feel like because you are a big company and want to take someone’s real life story and turn it into a commercial to sell Your Product or Service for Your Benefit without any regard to the person whose story you are telling.

        So, yes I would be totally annoyed with three Asian women as well.

        And how about I spin it another way as well? What if this was a movie instead of a commercial? Now are there copyrights involved? And legal recourse? And isn’t the difference simply the length of the story?

        What gives any ad agency the right to hijack a person’s story and turn it into a fake story? If they want a fake story, they have or should have copywriters on staff or freelance to make up a fictious one.

        What is the difference in achievements? It’s also PR. Like a sleeper movie that becomes a big hit, it’s word of mouth to get the story out.

        What if the Citibank commercial reach was larger than the print reach of the real story? That is entirely possible and now Citibank has commercialized an inaccurate moment in time of history making people believe that the real actors were just better looking versions of the real people and that there were three men: two whites with a black sidekick. Given that this is inaccurate, it is also perpetuating a stereotype that white men are in charge. Oh yeah, I can see how this “appealed” to the test audience. What were those demographics? History is written by the victor, after all. If it were my achievement or my child’s, I would definitely sue simply to make a point such that ad agencies think twice before they hijack someone’s real life for their own benefit.

        ps I am not an attorney nor did I consult one to see if my argument holds up but I bet if you asked an attorney, there is a pretty convincing argument out there. And the PR buzz this lawsuit would generate would partially mitigate the untelling of incorrect story. Who knows, if the PR story is well timed during a slow news day, it might even go viral.

      2. To Bob,
        Just wanted to share a funny story. I was driving around town and my 9 year old daughter reads a flyer tacked to a telephone pole and says, “mom, sign me up for that class on suing.” I look over and say, “Honey, that’s a SEWING class! What are you interested in a class on suing? Do you even know what that means?”

        She says, “I want to sue people who piss me off.”

        “But I thought you wanted to be a billionaire when you grew up.”

        “That too.”

        Well folks, warning to those who think Asian and Pacific Islanders are passive when it comes to being the nail willing to stand up. This next generation doesn’t seem so tolerant as my generation or generations past.

      3. To Bob,
        Here’s another scenario. Let’s say Citibank decides to do a “we are part of your barrio neighborhood” ad campaign and they do a commercial showing an inner-city African American shaking hands with the president of the United Stars because he won the national science 6th grade science fair project. This, in real life, gets medals awarded by the White House so it’s a true story.

        In real life, however, a white kid from an upper middle class suburb, won the contest but that didn’t play to the demographic Citicorp wanted to grow which is to go toe to toe with Bank of America in urban settings. But they used a replica of his project anyway.

        This is totally fine, right? Because it’s not a national news story and the victim is a minor.

        So, if this was YOUR child, of course you are super excited to see him portrayed as an African American, son of a single mother, as they pan out to his cheering family. And you have no problem whatsoever with it. And your son is not upset either because now everyone thinks he stole his idea from a black kid. The kid who is shaking hands on TV with the president.

        And this is not discrimination because your son is Caucasian, the majority, being played by a minority. Race had nothing to do with it. It’s not their fault that your son’s ethnicity wasn’t appealing to the fast growing demographic they are charged with penetrating for the sake of their stock price. It’s just business. It just didn’t test well.

      4. To Bob,
        To answer your question: Would I be so bold as to think that they should be sued? Two words: oh, yes!

        And here’s how I’d proceed.
        1) I’d meet with this guy: Jack Lee, Partner; Minami, Tamaki, LLP; San Francisco. I’d pay a retainer just to file the claim and then see if he’d go pro bono. I’m not really after the damages $, I just want the PR story.

        2) I’d meet with MIT students who run student publication. I live in Boston, anyway. I’d point out to them and the MIT bloggers what a travesty this is to their own. There will be easy links to get from this. Great for SEO, and also keeps the story alive.

        3) I’d hire a local PR firm. I’d probably use my network to find a PR freelance who is Asian American. I’d reach out to the local student pubs at Harvard — don’t I know some of these kids anyway?! — as well as other schools. The Asian Student groups would be great for this. Plus local print and digital media including the Boston Globe. I’d research who covers race issues at the New York Times online pubs too. I’d pit this as NY vs Boston (We hate the Yankees, you know!). It’s a story with legs beyond the Asian American MIT community that way.

        4) It’s going to be all about social media at this point. With this extra PR boost and now blog posts popping out everywhere, I’d fan that flame. Get those kids back on TV and in the print. Let’s film their reaction as they watch this commercial. Let’s get their parents talking about how outraged they are plus their story of how they struggled to get their boys into MIT and how proud they are of their kids … and how this makes them feel. Get the kleenex out!

        5) My PR firm would put Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh in front of Occupy Boston. They’d demo their balloon. Then, we’d ask for two white guys and a black guy to be volunteers. We’d give them the raw materials and ask them to make the same contraption. Then we’d project the Citibank commercial onto a wall. I’d have to come up with a good chant too. I think piggybacking off the Occupy Movement is a great way to get local Boston TV. Heck, we’d even make the local NECN news.

        6) Pretty soon, as this seems like it This Just Won’t Die … Citicorp is going to start to feel like their ad agency is screwing up. Heads will roll, or at least there will be a tense meeting that we are not privvy to with the head of that big ad agency. If this seems like it’s starting to get embarrassing to Citicorp, they will want to settle to Just Make It Go Away.

        And then, there is a precedent. A warning to Madison Avenue of what happens when Ad Agencies so casually recast real people’s stories. This will be the cautionary tale. The next time, maybe the real people will be involved — probably, they already carry a Citibank credit card anyway. Aren’t Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh students? Isn’t that priceless?

        Yes, the victors will write the history, but to counter that: if you can imagine it, you can do it. Here’s a road map to Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh. Free of charge. Go crazy.

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