By Mary Ellen Holden

This month, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media celebrates the vibrant and diverse culture of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and their contributions to society. Industry data and consumer insights have identified Asian Americans as a driving force in the U.S., both as cultural influencers and powerful consumers. Consistent with our mission and a longstanding research partner to the Institute, Nielsen understands the cultural narrative for this community to guide the messaging and marketing of brands to consumers. Together, our insights and metrics drive action.

In 2020, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) team at Nielsen were alarmed by the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread, so did the intensity and ferocity of hate crimes and rhetoric against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. While awareness of the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and intentional acts against the Asian American community increased, Nielsen hypothesized that some brands, including Fortune 500 companies, may unintentionally fund hate in digital content.

Many brands and content creators have actively embraced inclusion, diversity, and social justice in their marketing and corporate social responsibility efforts. Consumers are demanding more accountability from brands and businesses, so corporate social responsibility now needs to also account for brand safety. Nielsen’s Offering Hope, Not Funding Hate research found more than 250 ad campaigns in Q1, 2021 ran adjacent to digital content featuring racist, disparaging, and xenophobic terminology related to coronavirus origins, Asians, and China.

I spoke with Patricia Ratulangi, Asian American Spokesperson for Nielsen and VP Global Communications – DE&I, to learn more about this timely research and see what else Nielsen is doing to support AAPI.

Mary Ellen Holden: What is the goal of Nielsen’s DE&I Team?

Patricia Ratulangi: DE&I is a catalyst for everything we do, and it ensures that our research helps create a better future for all audiences. We are uniquely positioned within the industry as we stand at the intersection of business, community, and advocacy. Our insights and research are powerful tools to help shed light and find opportunities for businesses to engage and raise underrepresented voices. Through our Diverse Intelligence Series, we have reported on the following communities for over a decade: African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans.

Earlier this year, Sandra Sims-Williams was promoted and appointed Chief Diversity Officer. As the team leader, she committed to ensuring a fair and equal Nielsen experience for employees where everyone can bring their best self to work. We also looked at our stakeholders to ensure that we are the employer of choice, and to our clients, a trusted and valued business partner.

Mary Ellen: How did the study “Offering Hope, Not Funding Hate” come about?

Patricia: We realized that with the racial reckoning going on, consumers want more – it’s no longer enough to donate or sign a pledge (though that is a good starting point). With the spike in hate speech and hate crimes, we wanted to dig deeper and see if there is a relationship between media, hateful rhetoric, and advertising. Our goal was to educate and raise awareness, to show a path forward for the brand and the ad industry. We wanted to explore racist terminology and where brands advertise online. First, we looked at discriminatory keywords tying the pandemic to Asians e.g., China virus, kung flu. Using algorithms, we searched for U.S.-based URLs where these terms were appearing. We focused on just the sites being viewed on computers in the first quarter of 2021. Next, we looked at who was advertising there.

Mary Ellen: What did you find?

Patricia: We found over a dozen Fortune 500 companies and at least 66 brands advertised within that content. We’re not publishing names, but advertisers’ categories included arms and ammunition, retail, apparel, travel, and television stations. If you’d like to learn more, please reach out, and we can work with you.

The other thing to note is the number of visitors to those sites. 38 million people – which is about 1 in 10 Americans, who had been exposed to this hate speech. Given how tough things have been for so many of us with the turmoil of the pandemic, this content points the blame on Asians. No wonder there has been an increase in anti-Asian hate in the country.

Mary Ellen: So, what is your goal?

Patricia: We want our studies to start industry conversations on what we can do to fight hate and drive change! With this study, we’d like businesses to rethink how and where ad campaigns are showing up, work more closely with and demand more accountability from their ad placement partners. Failure to do so is a brand safety issue. Despite their efforts to do the right thing creatively, many Fortune 500 companies and independent brands will dilute their efforts and potentially alienate consumers.

Change requires collective action. As the Institute does within the creative community, with the industry working together, we hope that protective barriers and interventions can be put in place within the ad buying process and ecosystem.

Most importantly, we want to educate companies who are likely unaware that their ads appear adjacent to content with hate speech. The question to ask is: Do I want my brand to be seen even once in this type of content? Advertisers can take a closer look at their exclusion lists and hold the digital ad platforms accountable to take more care in what inventory is purchased on their behalf.

Mary Ellen: How does this information empower companies?

Patricia: Unknowingly, several Fortune 500 companies and over 66 brands were advertising next to this hateful messaging. Through this study, Nielsen is trying to show that they need to do something about it. Brands can drive change. They can look to place their ad dollars in content that supports diversity.

We will host client webinars to talk about the findings and our 2021 Asian American Diverse Intelligence Series release later this week. This year we are also sharing the latest findings from our Gracenote Inclusion Analytics solution that looks at content on-screen. We looked at the top shows across Broadcast, Cable, and Streaming to see how representative that content is of Asians and subgroups like South Asians, Southeast Asians, and East Asians. Representation by numbers, though is just one part of the story. We also wanted to explore the context in which these different groups are being seen. What are the stories being told when different groups are being depicted?

Using Gracenote video descriptors and metadata, we looked at the themes that are being presented. This provides another opportunity for brands to vote with their ad dollars. That would send a strong signal to the industry and the content creators you want to help change perception and break stereotypes by advertising in programming more reflective of diverse Asian experiences.

Mary Ellen: What is Nielsen doing on a companywide basis to support AAPI Month?

Patricia: We are fueling conversations inside our own company and are hosting an entire month of programming focusing on Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, telling stories by our Asian employees to share their cultures and educate our fellow employees. We also invited Asian Americans Advancing Justice to speak about combating anti-Asian hate crimes and how to protect yourself/others while staying safe.

Mary Ellen: Can you share a little about your journey?

Patricia: I came to this country from Singapore as a college student, so my experience is inherently different from being born here. I’ve always worked in corporate communications and blessed with mentors and managers who encouraged me to do more and be more – seek a greater “why” for what I do. That led me to a focus on women’s equity. Part of my first interaction with the Institute was in my capacity as the communications leader for our Women In Nielsen Business Resource Group when we wanted to tell our members more about how our company is helping the industry be more equitable through our research.

I haven’t put much focus on fighting Asian discrimination. But following an incident with a white male executive at an external company who expected me to act like a timid Asian woman, I had to dig deeper to understand what it means to be an Asian and a woman in America. His comment implied that I did not behave like a typical woman or a typical Asian woman. It was a double whammy – That was a pivotal moment for me, and now I’m an Asian spokesperson for Nielsen, which I never thought I’d be.

Mary Ellen: Can you talk a little about Nielsen and the Nielsen Foundation’s longstanding relationship with the Institute?

Patricia: We are proud to partner with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and carry its mission forward. Through our Data for Good pro bono efforts, Nielsen has provided ratings data to help the Institute define and analyze television content for See Jane television reports. We’ve also recently provided Gracenote Studio Data to help the Institute better understand equity and inclusion behind the camera for the See Jane TV reports. The Nielsen Foundation, a private foundation originally funded by Nielsen, has also supported the Institute with grants since 2017, ranging from support for an Institute impact study to the continued development of the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ) tool, including the Spellcheck for Bias component that analyzes scripts before production.

Mary Ellen: Please share your closing thoughts and actions that can be taken now.

Patricia: I think back to the racial reckoning that’s been going on in our country, leading to an awakening. The Asian American community has always been thought of as a stronghold, but we tend to stay out of trouble. It’s time for us to speak up. The passing of the anti-Asian hate crimes bill is one step. We need to do more and raise our voices — writing to your congress leaders, supporting local Asian businesses, voting with your eyeballs by viewing more diverse programs. And reach out to share stories with those in our circles who aren’t Asian.

Media has the power to shape perceptions and change beliefs. It’s going to take all of us in the media industry to drive change – starting with how ads are bought and sold to ensure that the stories we see on screen reflect the diversity of our community.

And to the advertisers: consumers are demanding more and connecting with us requires a new level of engagement. It’s also a matter of brand safety. Brands that show they are values-driven, care about social justice, fighting discrimination, and show a deeper understanding of the Asian American community, are the brands that will win.

I’m excited to be part of this movement and awakening to help the media ecosystem act. Enough with the hate; it’s time to bring hope through action.

For more on the study and Nielsen’s Asian American Diverse Intelligence Series, visit

Diagrams and Photos Credit: Nielsen