Agency Says #WashTheHate Against Coronavirus-Fueled Racism

Multicultural agency IW Group created the campaign with no brand involvement

A light blue bar of soap has the phrase #WashTheHate carved into it like a logo
WashTheHate/IW Group
Headshot of Mary Emily O

Key insights:

Asian Americans, like everyone else, are afraid right now. Afraid of contracting a potentially deadly virus during a global pandemic, or losing their jobs.

But on top of everything else, many now fear being attacked if they go out in public: A older woman chased and shoved in a New York subway station. A man sprayed with air freshener on a train. A young woman spit on by a man as he yells at cars to “run them over.” A family waking up in Fresno to find graffiti on their car reading “F**k Asians and Corona Virus.” These are just a few of the many reported hate incidents that have ramped up since news of the novel coronavirus spread last month.

The day after President Trump insisted on referring to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” multicultural marketing agency IW Group quickly launched an organic, in-house social campaign to address discrimination currently facing Asian Americans. Creatives took action without the backing of any brands or companies, volunteering their skills and soliciting celebrity influencers who were already in the agency’s network.


“The agency is primarily, but not entirely, focused on marketing to the Asian American consumer. Obviously, we have expertise within that community, and that gives us relationships that we can leverage for a campaign like this,” said Telly Wong, svp and chief content officer at IW Group.

Wong knew it would take longer to secure a brand sponsorship or even film a PSA, and he wanted to act fast. He needed to address the obvious concern that brands might hesitate to get on board.

This is such a politically charged topic,” Wong said. “That’s one of the reasons we decided, ‘Hey, let’s just go out and do something.'”

Last week, Wong reached out to actors Celia Au (Wu Assassins) and Tzi Ma (Mulan, The Man in the High Castle). Both had already encountered hate incidents directly: Au filmed the now-viral cell phone video of a man being sprayed with Febreze during a racist rant about the virus, and Ma had been harassed while heading into his local Whole Foods Market.

As I approached the entrance, this car turned the corner and slowed down,” Ma recalled. “He stopped in front of me, rolled down the window, looked at me straight in the eye, and said, ‘You should be quarantined.’ I had this moment of being frozen in time. … I just kind of went cold. I was in shock.”

Ma signed on eagerly to the #WashTheHate campaign, and filmed a 20-second video of himself washing his hands while condemning anti-Asian racism. In it he says: “Hate will get you sick, even if the virus doesn’t.”

Other influencers posted similar messages for #WashTheHate. In an Instagram video featuring her two children, Opening Ceremony co-founder Carol Lim told followers, “This virus doesn’t discriminate. So why are we?” TikTok couple @ourfire (Chris Kerr and Sharla May) shared their #WashTheHate message with their 5.6 million followers after being deluged with racist comments on a different post about a visit to Japan.

A number of high-profile Asian Americans have also been harassed. Journalist Jiayang Fan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, tweeted on March 17 that a man called her a “Chinese bitch” as she took out her garbage. (Dozens of angry responses to her tweet insinuated she was lying about the incident.) Influencer Eugenie Grey, AKA @feralcreature, posted on Instagram the same day, saying that a man had run up behind her and kicked her small, elderly dog. Just a few days earlier while traveling in Paris, Grey said in a separate post, someone jumped in front of her and yelled “coronavirus” as she approached an Uber.

Ma said many of his personal friends and colleagues have had similar experiences, with incidents frequently occurring at grocery stores.

We are no longer ‘we.’ We are ‘they,'” said Ma. “We’re no longer recognized as part of the fabric of American society. It’s disturbing.”

Ma raised the specter of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death in Detroit by autoworkers in 1982. At the time, anti-Asian sentiment was especially high as workers blamed Japanese imports for the loss of their jobs—and took out their anger in the form of racism against their own neighbors. Chin’s killers assumed he was Japanese, and Ma pointed out that when it comes to anti-Asian racism, “There’s no differentiation between our heritage and who we are. We are just kind of lumped together.”

Asian American professionals in advertising and marketing have not been spared, either. Genny Hom-Franzen, executive director of the Asian American Advertising Federation (3AF), told Adweek that she recently went to a San Francisco drugstore to pick up her child’s monthly prescription.

“A guy in front of me was holding a container of Clorox wipes,” said Hom-Franzen. “He saw me and turned around and opened them and started wiping himself down with them. And he told me we were supposed to be six feet apart.”

Hom-Franzen also described a sense of shock that froze her in place.

I live in the Bay Area and it’s a very diverse community. It shouldn’t be happening here,” she said.

Freelance art director Evan Choi told Adweek that he’s been told to “get out of the country.” Choi worked on a series of anti-xenophobia subway posters with Pride Train co-founder Thomas Shim, who echoed the growing anxiety. Shim said he’s felt “watched” and that friends and neighbors have been “yelled at and spat at.”

3AF president Jay Kim said the organization’s board has been brainstorming ways to help combat the wave of discrimination. The group is a sponsor of #WashTheHate, along with most of the nation’s biggest Asian American advocacy nonprofits.

But so far, one sector has been strangely quiet about addressing the rising tide of anti-Asian hate: brands.

Iris Yim, 3AF vice president, said brands are missing a major Asian marketing opportunity by staying silent on hatred.

When you market to Asian American consumers in the U.S., you’re really talking to Asian countries as well,” Yim said. “Anything they do within the U.S., the campaign will spread globally.”

Kim pointed out that the virus-related discrimination has been just as global. And with Asian Americans having higher than average income and being notoriously brand loyal, he’s surprised companies aren’t using this opportunity to speak directly to them.

“If brands pay attention, it’s a good chance for them to get global support,” said Kim. “But no one is standing up, and it’s a really missed opportunity to show that they actually do diversity and inclusion.”

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.