China’s massive Time’s Square video ad

This ad, coinciding with Hu’s trip to the US, runs on six colossal video billboards over Time’s Square. According to the FT it was created by the global ad agency Lintas, but I’m willing to place bets it was conceived and produced in China, and it wasn’t run by any US focus groups.

The golden rule for this kind of messaging is to speak in the voice of your audience. I don’t think this ad does that. It calls out for localization, and I’m afraid it’s going to backfire, if it hasn’t already, raising cries about “Red China” and its creepy propaganda.

Reading between the lines of WSJ reporter Loretta Chao’s post about the ad, I get the sense that she thinks it’s a mistake, and that she won’t be alone in this belief.

[E]ach group of people in the ad is pictured with a banner — some more literal than others. A photo of Yao Ming and other athletes standing in front of the Birds Nest national stadium in Beijing is titled “Thrilling Chinese Athletics.” An image of Mr. Li standing alongside two other technology entrepreneurs, Netease founder Ding Lei and Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, carries a banner that reads “Chinese Wealth” — a label probably more immediately meaningful (and more appealing) to Chinese viewers than the hundreds of thousands of daily passersby in Times Square.

The appearance of the Internet executives fades into a solo shot of Wang Jianzhou, chairman of China’s biggest state-owned telecom giant China Mobile, also under the “Chinese Wealth” banner. That image, while almost certainly obscure for New York pedestrians, could probably be interpreted by imaginative Chinese viewers as either ominous or depressing in the light of the company’s government-backed ubiquity.

I understand China’s thirst for soft power and image enhancement outside of China. I question, however, why they never seem able to get good marketing advice about how to present themselves. Chinese Wealth and Thrilling Chinese Athletics banners simply won’t resonate (I believe) with Time’s Square pedestrians. It will be seen as cheesy propaganda, the likes of which most Americans thought went out of style with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I suggest that next time they find a Donald Draper-type on Madison Avenue who understands the need to focus on the viewer first. They (China) need to put away all their beliefs about what works in China. It’s irrelevant when you’re putting up gargantuan ads in New York City. Americans aren’t interested in Wang Jianzhou.

Update: Interesting comments here, some of them quite stupid.

Update 2: China Geeks has a superb post on the ad, much better than my own.

Update 3: And another great analysis of the ad can be found here.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 27 Comments

Richard. Good to see you back. A quick one on this piece, which now features on about 6 sites. Custer’s site contains some very perceptive comments re this billboard Hello World extravaganza, and by far the best reading is that it has nothing to do with crowds in Times Square and everything to do with the audience back home, where the message can be shaped and organised to build Hu’s legacy among other equally important domestic agendas.

January 20, 2011 @ 7:27 am | Comment

King, China is always seeking to impress its domestic audience, but the fact remains that they’re sinking billions of dollars into their global soft power campaign, so they must care, at least a little bit, about how they’re actually appearing in the markets they’re trying so hard to impress.

Thanks for pointing me to Custer’s post; I just added an update about it.

January 20, 2011 @ 7:36 am | Comment

Welcome back the mighty duck – hope all good after a spell off

January 20, 2011 @ 7:43 am | Comment

This reminds me of the time Kazakhstan took 4 pages in the NYTimes for an ode to itself (in the wake of Borat :) )

Last year apparently they spent money again, not as much, but on a huge banner that pointed nowhere:

http://elepsis.org/an-unexpected-ad-on-the-new-york-times-websit

By these standards China is doing fabulously well. Really. They’re leagues ahead of Kazakhstan’s PR!

I will now fall under the table and giggle.

January 20, 2011 @ 9:37 am | Comment

It occurs to me that if we looked at U.S. or other countries’ advertisements, I would also expect them to be pretty tone deaf. Certainly China’s 对外 media efforts are not excellent. But are they unusually bad, or is this just a higher-profile country than usual?

January 20, 2011 @ 9:55 am | Comment

Graham, I would strongly disagree. The US and most developed countries are shrewd and sophisticated in their marketing and understand the importance of speaking to their audience in their own voice. Of course, the US doesn’t need to put up garish billboards, but gets its point across via more subtle but much more powerful methods, such as helping countries in distress (Haiti being the latest example). America is the master of soft power, for better or for worse. China will learn, but right now it’s pretty clumsy and, in your words, unusually bad.

January 20, 2011 @ 10:22 am | Comment

It’s like “Got Milk?” with lame taglines, in groups of people the audience doesn’t really know. I can see where they wanted to go, but their compass sent them in the wrong direction.

January 20, 2011 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

It’s not just the ad. The entire message was wrong to begin with if you assume their audience was the Americans.

If you assume the objective was “make them like us” – then what message would do that? Certainly not the “me so awesome” message. Might I suggest something closer to, “Let’s get to know each other”?

Therefore, I agree 100% that this was aimed at a domestic China audience; yet not a mass audience. To me it seems a if the audience was 3 guys on the “Times Square advertising funding committee” and that is absolutely it.

January 20, 2011 @ 9:38 pm | Comment

If there’s no controversy surrounding the large video, how is it propaganda? I haven’t heard any protest from groups and that is enough of a success more than a failure. Anyways, Lang Lang is going to play piano over there since New Yorkers have already been accustomed to Lang Lang when he played in Central Park.

The video is filled with Chinese economic culture. I don’t see anything wrong with the production of the video.

I don’t understand the backlash from Chinese ex-pats.

January 22, 2011 @ 10:03 am | Comment

There’s no backlash. Just the factual observation that this kind of advertising doesn’t resonate with US audiences and comes across as rather clumsy propaganda.

If there’s no controversy surrounding the large video, how is it propaganda?

Incomprehensible question. Does something only qualify as propaganda if there’s controversy swirling around it? Nonsense.

January 23, 2011 @ 3:44 am | Comment

Isn’t the point of advertising to reach your target audience and speak to them effectively? If the target here is the mid-town New Yorker, then I’m not sure how this ad succeeds beyond fulfilling caricatures and resurrecting stereotypes. Nothing wrong with that, if that was the message they were trying to convey. But I would find that to be rather unlikely.

On the other hand, if the target is the PRC citizen who catches wind of this advertising coup of prime real-estate in big city USA via internet chatter, then mission is probably accomplished. Rather expensive exercise, but China can afford it so why not.

January 23, 2011 @ 4:21 am | Comment

@Does something only qualify as propaganda if there’s controversy swirling around it? Nonsense.

Yes. From what I heard of blogs and comments, the ad made people react of “nothingness.” How can “propaganda” be nothingness? Propaganda affect people’s minds, emotions, and action of a given group for a specific purpose, which many people who dislikes this ad feel emotionless and nothing.

January 23, 2011 @ 10:15 am | Comment

“You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point nonetheless.”

Chinese propaganda has only one effect on foreigners – it makes them laugh, because it’s so unbelievably ham-fisted and unsubtle. It also has that exact same effect on many smart Chinese people I know, of course – the smarter you are, the more hilarious it gets.

January 23, 2011 @ 11:05 am | Comment

“How can “propaganda” be nothingness?”
—when the propaganda is done poorly, as in this case. Poorly-done propaganda is still propaganda, only without the desired effect.

January 23, 2011 @ 12:38 pm | Comment

@Richard
“Chinese propaganda has only one effect on foreigners – it makes them laugh”

That is the problem when one does not need to confront other opinions and has a strong control on what others can say or discuss.

In the end…. terrible for public relations. Specially when you have to project an image abroad.

For officials going abroad, when they repeat the current official government line they risk to get the treatment: “As worth to talk with as to do it with a gramophone”

I wonder if Chinese companies going international suffer from a similar effect due to the information environment where they grew.

Hhhhmm…. When an opposition is not allowed, muffled or choked, one loose a good deal in argumentation and PR abilities that would come handy when going abroad.

January 23, 2011 @ 9:47 pm | Comment

Oh please, CCP and poorly-done propaganda shouldn’t be in the same sentences. CCP has refine the art of propaganda and this ad or video or whatever you call it isn’t one of them.

January 25, 2011 @ 1:21 am | Comment

Jason, you’re joking, right? Have you seen the parodies of CCTV created by Chinese people? (Here, for example.) Chinese propaganda has been laughed at just about everywhere. The latest example was the Confucius prize. And don’t misunderstand. I love China and its people. It’s its propaganda that is so lethally boring, predictable and ham-handed. And many, many, many Chinese people agree.

January 25, 2011 @ 1:48 am | Comment

@Richard

That’s exactly my point. CCP propaganda has a certain aesthetics of being over the top and extremely obvious that even layman can see a mile away. This ad or video doesn’t follow the CCP propaganda rule book by a long shot.

January 25, 2011 @ 2:42 am | Comment

Well, we all have our opinions. Maybe it was a lot less awful than other CCP propaganda, but to most Westerners, I’m afraid, it was a colossal dud.

January 25, 2011 @ 3:37 am | Comment

To Jason,
while the CCP is no doubt abundantly experienced in offering up propaganda to PRC citizens, she is not nearly as proficient when it comes to speaking to foreigners. So it’s hardly surprising that she would be even less adept at offering propaganda to Americans than she is to PRC folks.

January 25, 2011 @ 4:42 am | Comment

@SKC

You don’t think the red light on Empire State Building to celebrate the Founding of the PRC is adept at offering propaganda to Americans?

It certainly caused commotion from the anti-CCP crowd. Where is the anti-CCP crowd howling in NYC over this ad or video?

January 25, 2011 @ 6:33 am | Comment

I hope you read MY post on the Empire State building going red on October 1. Here’s an excerpt:

China has done bad things, and it’s done good things, like all countries. China has its fair share of atrocities, injustices and a considerable legacy of repression and injustice. But China is not Nazi Germany, they are not a nation of deranged Maoists, and they happen to be one of the linchpins in the global economy that keeps America afloat. They happen to be moving in the right direction, despite some infuriating steps backwards. We all know the story, we all know the bad stuff and the good stuff.

So when I see Americans go insane over the Empire State Building turning red and yellow to mark the 60th anniversary of the PRC, I have to say it’s simply nuts. We recognize China, we trade with China, we work with China – our fates are tied together, perhaps inextricably. Seeing the outpouring of hate and paranoia from the right-wing blogs, while predictable. is a good reminder of the prejudices many in America bear toward our No. 1 trading partner, and of our ongoing inbred stupidity when it comes to scare words like “Red China.”

…And, by the way, some liberals, I am sure, will also get into the act – misperceptions abound on all sides about China (I cringe when I read certain lefty blogs I usually like when they go on about Tibet, blithely unaware of even the most basic facts). It’s embarrassing and it’s stupid. The PRC plays a vital role in America’s interests, it’s here to stay (at least throughout our lifetimes), it sucks in many ways but the extension of this courtesy, lighting up the Empire State Building, is not an act of appeasement or treason. This is diplomacy, whether it’s done by Bush or Obama. Grow up and get used to it.

I thought it was totally fine. Nicely done.

January 25, 2011 @ 9:38 am | Comment

To Jason,
I no longer have any clue what it is you’re trying to argue. Not the first time…and likely won’t be the last.

If arousing a reaction, as with the light on the Empire State Building, is supposed to be a sign that China is “adept at offering propaganda to Americans”, then by that logic, surely failing to arouse a reaction (or in your parlance, “nothingness”) in response to this video is a sign that China isn’t being so adept. Which is what I was saying. So at best, even by that metric, you have China being adept at spreading propaganda to Americans at times, while at other times, not so much.

But is that a reasonable metric? Is inciting vitriol against the PRC a sign of successful propaganda? Gee, China is so good at doing propaganda on Americans that she managed to piss off a bunch of them. Good show. Alternatively, is inciting one big yawn and some derisive laughter a sign of successful PRC propaganda in America? Wow, China is so good at doing propaganda on Americans that New Yorkers found them cringe-worthy. Well done. Either way, it’s a funny metric you’re using. But sometimes, in an effort to make the CCP look good in one’s mind, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do, I suppose.

January 25, 2011 @ 12:42 pm | Comment

@Richard – I do not agree with people who got angry about the lighting of the Empire State Building – the people who own the building have the right to do whatever they like with it.

Still, at heart, I do not think the founding of the PRC is an event worth celebrating. This year’s Double-ten celebration perhaps, since the ROC has developed into a democratic society, but the victory of one set of corrupt gangsters over another is nothing worth marking.

As for the adverts, no, they are not propaganda because they do not advocate a particular course of action or specifically seek to raise the profile of a particular organisation. This, of course, is yet another thing they fail to do. I can not understand why anyone could reasonably object to these adverts except on the grounds that they are a confusing failure.

January 25, 2011 @ 8:08 pm | Comment

“It occurs to me that if we looked at U.S. or other countries’ advertisements, I would also expect them to be pretty tone deaf. Certainly China’s 对外 media efforts are not excellent. But are they unusually bad, or is this just a higher-profile country than usual?”

The U.S. doesn’t have to take out advertisements in other countries’ media. The American culture and “brand” is globally omnipresent through American films, television, music, art, technologies, literature, food, corporations, NGOs, consumer goods, research, etc.

It takes a lot more than a few ads to build that kind of branding. The strengths and weaknesses of the U.S.A. are readily apparent across the world.

Also, can we add “sexist” to the list of adjectives describing this campaign? It’s hard to imagine “Stunning Chinese beauty” and whatever it says about “Chinese supermodels” sitting well with the professional American women going to and from their offices in NYC.

February 9, 2011 @ 3:30 pm | Comment

[...] posted last weekend about why the Chinese government is so good at “playing the crowd” at home, but not particularly good doing it on an international scale.  Every citizen has a certain preference [...]

March 3, 2011 @ 4:57 pm | Pingback

I think this ad is adequate. It’s not great, but it does its job, and considering the circumstances, that’s the best the Chinese Government can hope for.

As you yourself have said, Richard, prejudices and paranoia about “Red China” abound in the US. It would be pointless to produce a slick ad when it will almost certainly be dismissed as “Communist Propaganda”, no matter how subtle or skilled it is.

Instead, I would argue that this ad is *informative* rather than persuasive. It is both a reminder, that the Chinese people include such familiar figures as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, as well as showing the people of the US that China today is not the stereotypical “Red China” of the Cultural Revolution era. Gone are the PLA uniforms and the “Little Red Books”. Today’s China has artists, businessmen, and more. Ultimately, this ad is designed to show the American people what the Chinese *people* are like today: sophisticated, modern, and successful.

July 13, 2011 @ 12:48 am | Comment

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