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Seeing China in Times Square

By Kelly Diep | China.org | Updated: 2011-08-15 10:53

Until Valentine's Day, New Yorkers will be confronted every day with the faces of modern China. New Yorkers, already a group of jaded individuals who dislike tourists invading their city, might not appreciate this blatant tool of national promotion. The premiere of the 60-second film, "Experience China," coincided with Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House last week. The ad features some of China's most prominent celebrities on a bright red backdrop with the giant characters for China displayed prominently on the left. Some of the individuals featured on the big screen include basketball star Yao Ming and actress Zhang Ziyi. But most of the others are relatively unknown outside of China. While China should be given a gold sticker for its publicity efforts, was the ad really worth what was probably an exorbitant advertising fee? Overall, it lacks creativity and inspiration and says very little to its targeted audience.

When I first heard that China would be placing a giant ad in the middle of Times Square, my first reaction was, "Wow, now that is the epitome of a free market." Never mind the previous year of economic and political tension between the United States and the People's Republic of China. The higher-ups in corporate advertising in America view China as an affluent client willing to pay big money (and who has the credit rating to do so). It is perfectly acceptable for China to promote itself to Americans. The reverse might be a bit more challenging. After watching the 60-second clip online, my initial response was: "Where is China?" Not only did I not recognize most of the people in the ad, but I could not make out their names in the small captions, which precluded any hope of a quick internet search.

The film spotlights the achievements of various Chinese stars in their respective fields with elaborate subheadings like: "Thrilling Chinese Athletes," "Award Winning Chinese Talent" and "Stimulating Chinese Dialogue." While certainly an excellent way to instill pride in Chinese nationals by emphasizing the achievements of these individuals, the ad does nothing to teach Americans about China. Americans have their own celebrities to idolize and gossip about. Flashing images of another country's stars do little to excite new interest. Most Americans have never head of the four CCTV hosts featured and most likely will never to meet any of them if they do visit China. What's unfortunate about the ad is that only a small minority of China's 1.2 billion people will ever be able to see it in person. Some might even have to ask the inevitable, "How much did the government have to pay for this ad we will never see?" The ad has an ambiguous message and an unclear audience. As a result, it confuses rather than excites.

One thing the ad does well is highlight China's beauty. But this beauty is not that of the country's, but of airbrushed individuals. Americans are already aware that China is not lacking in beautiful people—"Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" clinched this point. In an advertisement that is intended to sell the beauty of a nation, one would expect images of the famous Great Wall, lion dancing and fireworks, serene and breathtaking rivers and the beautifully ornate Forbidden City. After a poor year of public relations, China needs to revamp its image and reemphasize its rich culture to Americans to remind them why the country's traditions are worth learning more about.

Frankly, Americans could care less right now about who is wealthy in China or that the Chinese government is directing greater investment into its space program. Last year, President Obama proposed to cut the NASA budget and discard plans for the "back to the moon" program. They are more focused on creating an Earth with green alternatives for fueling our economy and vehicles. One interesting figure under the heading "Cutting-Edge Chinese Agriculture" is Yuan Longping. The only reason I know about the father of hybrid rice is that all the Chinese students in my past SAT classes used him as their role model. Unfortunately, as Americans struggle to invest in greater job growth, his smile and the smiles of Wang Jianzhou (CEO of the state-backed giant China Mobile) and Robin Li (founder and CEO of Baidu) do nothing to alleviate three years of economic woes and anxiety. We're eager to bring jobs back to the States and are not impressed with last year's investigations into certain Chinese factories.

Perhaps 60 seconds is too short a time to really capture the essence of a nation, especially one like China. But the current advertisement lacks all the fanfare and opulence we would have expected from China after the brilliant Olympics opening ceremony. By excluding China's rich history, traditions and well-known landmarks, the advertisement leaves questions unanswered without any desire to actually answer them.

The author is an American working for an NGO in Beijing.

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