China’s Latest PR Fail?

You may recall last year, it was announced that China was spending bundles of money to create an advertisement designed to appeal to US audiences and turn the tide of US public opinion. All of China’s shiniest celebrities were called in, and then it all disappeared from the news.

But with Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has come news that the advertisement is out, and now it, or at least clips of it, are being played on the giant screens in Times Square! So what did the Chinese government decide was the best way to convince Americans to like China? Observe:

OK, maybe we’re not getting the whole picture from that news report, and we also can’t hear whatever audio will go with the ad, but it appears to consist of (1) shots of Chinese celebrities standing around and (2) a big 中国 (which Americans can’t read) next to a very tiny “China”. Um, what?

Actually, on the face of it, I sort of like the principle I imagine they started with: China has some cool, and unique, people, and Americans don’t really know that because China is some faceless “othery” place to them. This is true. However, this approach to introducing Chinese people to the US is, well, dumb.

First of all, regardless of what the audio says, the people are doing absolutely nothing in any of these shots, which makes them unmemorable and pointless. They don’t serve to illustrate anything other than that Chinese people exist, which was something Americans already knew. Seriously, you got together sixty of China’s most beautiful, famous people, and then asked them to stand around for a while?

(If you’re curious who, exactly, is standing around, check out this list the Baidu Beat folks have put together from the footage we have so far.)

Secondly, I wonder about the use of celebrities at all, given that 95% of the people in the video aren’t people Americans know or will be impressed by at all. I don’t think anyone is going to see that video and think, “Wow, Tan Dun is Chinese!” Most people have no clue who Tan Dun is, and those who do know him already know that he’s Chinese. As the one woman they ask about it in the news report above says, “I know Yao Ming, and uh, some of the supermodels…”

It is also worth pointing out that they obviously didn’t attempt to rework the ad at all to make it fit on those Times Square screens, so in many of the shots half of the names are obscured, people are cut out, etc. Bush league.

Maybe the audio somehow turns it into a captivating, mind-blowing coup d’etat somehow. But I highly doubt it.

It’s telling that at the end of that news report, the only American they ask about the ad as a whole says the advertisement is “moving” because it shows “where people work” and “their fields of interest.” Captivating!

I look forward to seeing the full video as it will air (or perhaps is already airing?) on US TV. But based on this quick introduction, this whole thing seems like a colossal waste of time and money. Can’t say that surprises me at all.

UPDATE: We now have the full video. It is even worse than I imagined, and I will write more about it later today or tomorrow, but in the interim, here it is for your (lack of) enjoyment. (Here’s a China-friendly version)

UPDATE 2: The release of the full video obliges me to add a couple things to my original assessment. First, the audio adds absolutely nothing to the video in terms of context, so I was right about that. Second, the design of the video itself is fairly flawed. Granted, we’re watching compressed web videos, so the colors are off and the resolution is low, but even at 420p, the names of the Chinese people in the video above are unreadable, and even the larger white text is very difficult to read when it is against a white backdrop. Presumably, if I were watching this on a large HD TV, these issues would be resolved, but it seems odd to design an advertisement with text too small to read in a web video and (I suspect) also to small to read on a standard-def TV when sitting a reasonable distance away.

There is one angle from which we might consider this ad a win for China, see the comments of Christopher C. Heselton below for more details on that. It’s possible that’s all their goal was with the ad, and if so, they have probably succeeded. But it’s equally clear that this ad is utterly meaningless to foreigners. Hard to know for sure whether or not the government really cares.

0 thoughts on “China’s Latest PR Fail?”

  1. What I really wondered about was why they overlayed the giant 中国 square over most of the captions. Talking about getting in the way of your own message.


  2. Totally disappointing. There’s no other way to appeal to the common American except with a montage of hot women in bikinis, and say, “This is what we aspire to in China. We’re just like you.”


  3. “Maybe the audio somehow turns it into a captivating, mind-blowing coup d’etat somehow. But I highly doubt it.” It’s probably in Mandarin.. but verrrrrrrrrryyyyy slllooooowwwwwww. A PR campaign so that Americans like China? What the? This is a totalitarian government, what do they care what the Americans think? Don’t worry little Hu, people will always shop at Wal-mart.


  4. Rui: There are other ways. As I recall, Obama got elected president despite not having a single ad with hot ladies in it. However, his advertisements did have some substance, and weren’t just “famous” people standing around.


  5. Quite my sentiments exactly; however, I think that is because we’re looking at this advertisement as a PR campaign towards the American public. On the surface, it does appear that way, but much like PR campaigns for cities within China (with the possible exception of Shanghai and Chengdu), the purpose is not to get the public attention so much as to gain the attention of political leaders.

    For example, in my own experience dealing with mid-size cities, televised PR campaigns to promote tourism and investment are usually cheap low-budget pieces aired ad nauseam during xinwen lianbo and not during popular television shows. The reasoning is that this was when political leaders (not necessarily national) were most likely to watch. It is an attempt to gain attention to their work, to add to the political leadership’s own prestige, and to encourage political leaders to push business ties. The advertisements make no sense as a PR campaign to the public to boast a regional image, but that’s because it’s not their intent.

    The ad in times square is much the same. Although on the surface it looks like a PR attempt to gain the attention of the American public, in reality, it looks to me more as a method to gain the attention of Hu Jintao and the Chinese public as a mark of prestige – “Look, we got an advertisement in Times Square and on American television.” The selection of Chinese celebrities makes the point ever more poignant. They were chosen not to be recognizable to the Chinese viewing audience, not an American audience.


  6. Sorry, mistake in the last sentence. Should read, “They were chosen to be recognizable to the Chinese viewing audience, not an American audience.”


  7. @Custer:

    Clearly, no disrespect was intended by my original comment. I was kidding, but not entirely.

    Obama campaigned for over a year, wrote books, gave speeches, showed up every time you blinked. By the end of 2008 I knew him better than I knew my uncle. And I’m Canadian. In the span of a TV commercial all you can hope to do is make China appear more than a faceless joyless manufacturing machine. A bit of humor can go a long way.


  8. @ Rui: Agreed. But China has been pouring gallons of money into their soft power machine, way more than Obama and McCain spent, combined, on their campaigns. The issue is that a book by the Chinese government would be whitewashed, speeches would be guarded, etc. Part of the reason we felt like we “knew” Obama was that he appeared to be so frank and was willing to discuss problems and accept criticism. The Chinese government isn’t willing to discuss problems or listen to criticism; my feeling is that ANY soft power initiative pushed under those circumstances is going to come off as a lecture.

    A sprinkling of self-aware criticism, some humor, and a good dose of “here are the good things about China” would go a long way. A much longer way than just having a bunch of famous dudes standing around.

    @ Christopher: Maybe. But the government specifically announced when they started working on this that the intention was to increase China’s “soft” cultural power among foreigners. This may make it look like they’ve done that, which would be a domestic win, but it won’t have any effect on US public opinion. If they really don’t care, I wonder why they’re spending so much money and effort on it…if the audience is meant to be purely domestic, why not just stick with the “evil, meddling foreigners” approach? It has worked in the past, and it’s much cheaper.


  9. @Custer:
    No arguments there. If they’re not being honest about themselves, nobody would ever take them seriously. They can’t even get the Chinese to believe everything they say, what hope do they have with foreigners.
    My question is: Why can’t they get some decent PR advice? Hire some American producers. All they have to do is be a bit self-deprecating about their problems, and say that they’re working very hard to improve. Then they’d instantly look human.


  10. At first I thought China was wasting its money trying to improve its image. Average American already have a condescending view of China because of its ‘evil’ government. But this ad is not about its government, rather about its people and its accomplishments.

    After watching this, I thought this is a pretty clever AD. First of all the red color would probably attract alot of attention. Rather than showing some attractive models, it showed real people that most Americans don’t know. I am willing to bet that some people would use their mobile phones and google those names. If the ad caught your attention and made you think for a second, it did its job.


  11. @ Rui: I have often wondered that myself. My guess is that they HAVE hired foreign PR people, but they don’t like the suggestions they’re given. Self-deprecation is dangerous, humor lacks “dignity”, etc….I could see them shooting down the ideas a good PR company would give them.


  12. People pay attention to those screens in Times Square? </snark>

    I can’t help but agree with Christopher. I also don’t think that it’s aimed at foreigners but Chinese. Were it actually aimed at foreigners, they’d’ve gone with a foreign PR firm et al. Acting as if they’re trying the soft method of approach, and then proclaiming that foreign images of China are still poor seems like a good strategy — “Look, we’ve tried our best, even putting out excellent ads, but those foreigners still hate/fear us!”


  13. Custer. Your 13.56 is probably on the mustard.

    “According to reports the agency that created the film was “Lintas Worldwide (Shanghai Branch). However, the production was greatly influenced by the Chinese (SCIO).

    Therefore don’t blame the agency :)”

    Taken from CS

    Should have been titled: Hello World, we’re coming to get ya sucka’s.

    Sound track: War by Edwin Starr


  14. @ Custer

    I agree it is a waste of money as an American PR campaign and as a domestic mark of prestige, but an advertisement toting the “meddling foreigners” line would not work either. I think it’s a message saying, “Look how powerful we’ve become. This was unimaginable 30 years ago.” In some ways though, it can be taken as a serious attempt; however, I would imagine the people responsible for production were also trying to conform to what they felt CCP leadership would think is an appropriate approach in order to pet their ego. So, although the state may have wanted a serious PR campaign, the producers may have been thinking about what political leadership and the Chinese public would think is a successful advertisement. For example, in this little clip, you could clearly see that they used the famous opera/propaganda singer Song Zuying, but seriously, she’s really only popular among the CCP leadership over 50; most everyone else (at least in my experience) find her to be a laughing stock (Lao Jiang de ernai). The reason is most likely because they are trying to display a popular CCP celebrity artist – someone even President Hu would find acceptable.


  15. Skipping all the valid arguments about kissing the president’s arse and so on.

    East Asia in general sucks in general in the marketing department. South Korea’s tourism ad was essentially the same thing – showing off their celebrities and teen idols (which no one would recognise outside SK) the only difference being they actually showed some scenery of Seoul yet even that was so generic it could have belonged to any developed city.

    Same thing goes for every other ad in East Asia. (eg. making a singer the Asia Intel Core series spokesperson has no logical/emotional connection yet they did it anyway)

    Perhaps someone else can explain the irrationality of featuring unknown celebrities prancing around in every single ad. (Confucianism/Nationalism etc?)


  16. @lordofreimes

    I would step back from generalizing like that. I don’t know what advertisement in South Korea you are referring to, but the marketing campaign launched by Seoul since 2008 has been a wild success and does not utilize celebrities (except in their Southeast Asia advertisements where they were playing off the popularity of Korean TV dramas and fashion). It has been so successful in fact that in the two years tourism has jumped 20%, has gone to one of the top travel destinations world wide, and has even been praised in Times Magazine.

    Seoul is not the only city that has met with success. Chengdu began a concentrated marketing campaign last year on domestic tourism from Beijing, Shanghai, and several other major Chinese cities, which appear to have been highly successful – tourist from Beijing doubled from 80,000 in 2008 to 160,000 in 2009, and they are spending more. The Chengdu campaign was also very creative in attaching itself to a mildly-successful romantic drama set in the city.

    The use of celebrities, however, is not necessarily a bad move. In fact, the recent California tourism marketing followed the exact same move! One also has to consider the audience. Yes, using Korean celebrities or Chinese celebrities would not make sense in the United States (with the exception of Jacky Chan, Yao Ming, and Zhang Ziyi perhaps), but in East Asia and Southeast Asia, which are often the main targets of these productions, it makes much more sense. So, I wouldn’t say that East Asia in general sucks in marketing; to me it seems more like an issue of investment, goals, audience expectations, and hiring the right expertise. Many East Asian cities debate the financial utility of city brand building (and the debates have been quite vociferous at times, particularly in Korea), and as a consequence, many cities do not see the need for a large investment in a wonderfully thought out marketing campaigns and instead calculate in terms of: will my superiors see this? what gets me the most ad space for my money? What is the cheapest production value so I can place more advertisements?


  17. Since the original meaning of “captivate” was to literally capture or subjugate, the phrase “Captivating Chinese Dialogue” in the ad just blew out my irony meter.


  18. The issue with Chinese soft power experiments within western liberal democracies is they do little to hide the hard fact that China presently is a totalitarian regime. A political power structure and a method that doesn’t jive that well with the western public. No matter what spin the Chinese take, it’s unlikely that western public will buy it and see it for more than straight propaganda.


  19. Personally I think these ads are lame but there is no question that China’s soft power attempts are working in some key nations. You can look up the statistics on the PEW global attitudes survey on what people think of China.

    In 2007:
    and in 2010:

    China is getting more popular in the US (from 42% favorable to 49% favorable). Contrary to what Western media has been reporting about China’s popularity in some African nations, China is one of the most popular nations in places like Nigeria and Kenya. In Europe China’s popularity dropped slightly in places like England and France, while seeing a bigger boost in popularity in places like Spain and Poland.

    China has lost a lot of charm in neighboring Asian nations. This makes good sense considering China’s military build up and will probably not get any better no matter much how soft power China can project. The best way to make neighboring countries to like China more is if China’s economy goes through the tank and its military weakened.


  20. Yeah, the ad had a distinct air of name-checking about it. In fact even calling it an ad seems a bit odd, since adverts are usually used to sell or promote something specific, and I can’t tell just from watching it what it is trying to sell/promote.

    If they were trying to promote “China” the country, a more tourist-board style would have been wise, if they were trying to promote “Chinese” the people, then some actual level of engagement with or description of the people mentioned was necessary. If the subject was “friendship”, nothing in the ad really discussed this.

    Let’s imagine that, say, Count Dracula were to visit Washington in the course of his duties as head of state of Transylvania, and that I am put in charge of coming up with a campaign to replace the image the American public have of a backward country ruled by vampires and promote Americo-Transylvanian friendship. Such a campaign might go something like this:

    – Focus on joint projects, such as factories built in the US with Transylvanian funds and vice-versa.

    – Interview giddy-eyed students from America and Transylvania on exchange visits to the other country (never mind that the American students come back looking somewhat pale and averse to sunlight).

    – Do plenty of adverts the main subtext of which are that Transylvania has lots of hunky guys/gorgeous girls (never mind that they “Vant to suck your blood” after mid-night).

    – Hit up positive historical events (if none exist, invent some).


  21. This is the best thread around at the moment.

    @red five…..a to-the-point summary.

    @FOARP… are we talking Bay Watch with Fangs to be produced by Paul Morrisey.


  22. They should’ve showed the high-rise developments in all the coastal cities instead. Maybe throw in promos for some upcoming Chinese corporations. How about green energy innovations? Or the spiffy new rail lines?

    Not sure why they thought non-Chinese would know who those people were, even I don’t know who half of them are.


  23. To me it doesn’t matter how many famous or interesting people come from China, and I hope none of it matters to my government.

    I really found it stupid to talk about “Thought Provoking Chinese Scholarship”, as mentioned in the commentary, I have no idea who 95% of these people are, but from what I know of China, I imagine that the only scholarship that the leadership finds Thought Provoking is that which supports the Chinese system of government.

    I will admit, I am very, very biased against China, in fact I try my best to boycott things made in China, but sometimes its hard to find an alternative, for which I would gladly pay twice the price.
    I just hope these great Chinese people are not those that would support the government, and accept corruption as a system that benefits them.


  24. I will admit, I am very, very biased against China, in fact I try my best to boycott things made in China, but sometimes its hard to find an alternative, for which I would gladly pay twice the price.

    There is a fine line between a political choice and racism, in your case.


  25. And I’m very curious. I have a question for Jeff A from Canada: If you see a Chinese tourist or student on the street in say Montreal, enjoying the view and local culture, generally a very nice and polite visitor. (All this is to say they are not horrible people by themselves.) And the person talks to you, either asking for direction or just casual conversations with a stranger.

    Do you punch them in the face, say “Effing Chinese!” and go away? Or you ignore them because of their ethnicity?


  26. I am afraid that something may be lost in translation in terms of my response.

    I have a few Chinese friends and I like Chinese people, as well as their culture. There are many beautiful Chinese works of art and the Chinese are a very intelligent people. By no means do I treat them any differently than I do other white people, Africans, Arabs, Euro etc. Especially tourists, I try to treat them even better.

    The phrase “I will admit, I am very, very biased against China” refers to the Country as a whole, not the individuals. Boycotting refers to products offered from China, and I do this on the basis of unfair wages paid to Chinese workers, corruption within the upper levels of Chinese business/government. I think you misunderstand my principal problem is the the Chinese Establishment, just as I have a problem with North American “big business” and CEO’s paying themselves bonuses of Millions of dollars while those who do the work are being laid off because they cannot be paid effectively.

    When I was talking about the advertisements, I maybe was a bit unclear as well. I know that China is full of great people, great minds etc. What I am betting on, or guessing, is that most the truly great minds that are present in China are suppressed because their intelligence easily finds the obvious faults that are present in China currently, and being intelligent they would want to share those faults with others.

    I hope that explains my position a bit better.


  27. Chinese trying to give themselves Face the Chinese way in a land that Face isn’t so important. It is just like the Chinglish signs you see every once in a while. There are plenty of native English speakers around to help make it better, but ‘to hell with them’ we will do it our way and if you don’t react the way we want you to react then we will just ignore it.


  28. Pingback: Party and State
  29. Oh look, the politically-correct butthurt panda lickers are here! It’s impossible to be “racist” against Chinese, because Chinese isn’t a race. It’s a nationality, comprising 56 distinct ethnic groups. Of course, this includes Tibetans and Uyghurs, who were “assimilated” by big, friendly, warm and fuzzy China.

    The reason the CCP psy-ops campaign failed, other than the fact that it was god-awful, is that their techniques of propaganda and influencing public opinion, while somewhat successful in the mainland, are ineffective elsewhere. It wouldn’t work in Hong Kong or Taiwan either. HKers and Taiwanese have the benefit of an educated population and a free media, as does the US (in most cases). The reality is that China desperately needs a modern political system, and that real social change cannot occur without political and cultural change – and this must come from the people. It can’t be engineered from the top down.

    The person who spoke of honesty nailed it – if Chinese soft power is to succeed, they must first elicit empathy. To appear even remotely human, a degree of personal and intellectual honesty is first needed. Living here though, the trends are not encouraging. In fact repression has been worsening. The pre-and-post Olympics PR assault is fundamentally insincere, because there is nothing nice about the CCP. It’s a sad, ugly country – a story of wasted human potential, of a people who have suffered much, for a very long time. The new glow of middle-class wealth, the skyscrapers of Shanghai, and a half-baked video in Times Square aren’t going to change this fact.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s