An Interview with John Jay of Wieden + Kennedy, Part 1
June 20, 2006
Today, we'll continue looking at the issues of how hip-hop has changed representations of American identity, this time in a discussion with John Jay, the executive creative director of Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising agency perhaps most responsible for hip-hop's shift into the mainstream during the mid-to-late '80s. W+K created Nike's famous Spike Lee and Michael Jordan "Just Do It" campaign, which helped usher in a new version of cool that was less white,suburban and North American, and more colored, urban and global.
In 13 years at W+K, Jay, a second-generation baby boomer Chinese American raised in Ohio, has overseen countless award-winning campaigns, including the launch of the Nike Presto line and the global promotion of street ball. He expanded W+K into Tokyo in 1998 and Shanghai in 2003. The Tokyo studio, in particular, has become a hotbed of experimentation and has been a key factor in spreading the hip-hop aesthetic into Asia. He now divides his time between those two offices and his base in Portland, where he plays a quiet role in the emergence of the city's exciting arts, design and music scenes.
I got to speak to John about his views on race and representation over the past two decades, and the role that media and advertising have played in the images of people of color.
Jeff Chang: Your career in advertising has spanned three decades. As an Asian American, what do you think has been the most important development in the representation of people of color during that time?
John Jay: Ouch, thanks for reminding me how long I have been doing this!
I was a part of the generation where I was a kid growing up in a Chinese Laundry watching spray-starch commercials featuring a couple saying "Ancient Chinese secret!" At least these were actual Chinese actors and not the faux Asians of the Charlie Chan era. Meantime, my parents would get turned down in their attempts to rent an apartment.
In 1985, I was called to participate in a protest in Times Square to voice our anger as Chinese against the movie, "Year of the Dragon". The Chinese lead, John Lone played a Chinatown gangster, Joey Tai, involved in some of life's finer things prostitution, gambling and murder. I decided to see the film first.
Not surprisingly, all the negatives existed in his character. But he was also strong, virile, sexy and heaven forbid a Chinese man with style. Strong? OK. But style? Joey Tai was an early form of "gangsta." He had power and I loved it.
This film demonstrated the "reality" that beautiful Asian women just can't stop themselves from [being with] white men even if [the men were] as disgusting as Mickey Rourke's NYC cop character, [and the women were] highly educated and sophisticated [like] the Asian newscaster played by then-influential fashion model, Arriane. So despite the real life accomplishments of real Asian women, their extreme exoticism and subservient character remained the same on screen. The fantasies of the white male continued their self-serving ego trip of cultural superiority.
Look at any hip-hop video or mainstream advertising: the extremes of Yellow Fever are evident. The exoticism of Asian women is a badge of conquest and coolness to be worn on the arms of non-Asian men. Not all of it is determined by overt racism anymore, [now of it is determined by] society's new openness and global culture. I have many Caucasian male friends who are with Asian girlfriends or wives, and their relationships are very positive, loving and sincere. However, media, in certain instances, remain colonial and exploitative.
Asian women in media have opened the doors for Asian men to appear in advertising and popular culture with a new sense of awareness and hipness. It has been a long and painful road, but Asian men have become characters of aspiration and intelligence beyond geekdom. The more diverse we became as citizens of accomplishment, from the sciences to the directors' chair to the runways of the world, Asian identity became more self-confident. They didn't make us, we did it first for ourselves.
"Progress" has taken its toll, Asians are now a lazy creative man's answer in pop culture desire for global hipness, eye candy for the sake of Pop.
How will we perservere in the end?
It's an ancient Chinese secret.
Jeff: Wieden + Kennedy was a pioneer in marketing urban style with the Spike Lee and Michael Jordan commercials in the mid-'80s, and in developing hip-hop lifestyling as the central marker of global cool. How important do you think hip-hop has been in selling American brands and ideas around the world?
John: Hip-hop culture and its four pillars have given the youth of the world a multi-disciplined voice of self-expression, a voice that comes from the bottom up, thus filled with cultural authenticity. This creative voice has been utilized by both major and underground brands to connect to an audience who aspires to that authenticity.
Of course, there are some mass brands who simply opt for hip-hop's entertainment value, clever lyrics and rhymes, musical hooks or trend making visual style. Hip-hop's commercial success allows the art-form to be willingly commodified and these brands skim the surface of the culture for style cues.
The Spike Lee and Michael Jordan collaboration is an interesting example of how Nike, over the years, has consistently opted to play on higher ground, and the company's desire to communicate its own values through cultural authenticity. The pairing of Spike and Mike brought together two rising cultural influencers of African-American descent at a time of racial change in America: an unapologetic filmmaker who showed life in Brooklyn along race lines, and a basketball player who would change the NBA while serving as Nike's corporate spokesman for many years to come.
The Spike and Mike commercials merged popular and sports culture into an expression of hipness that continues to influence contemporary advertising. In the years to follow, that Nike hipness would continue to build its reputation by finding and acknowledging new talent who brought a personal style or message based upon authenticity in sport and culture.
But in the late 90's after Jordan retired, there was a new story to be told...
Come back and check with us for Part 2 of this interview with John Jay.