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.