On the international day of love, China’s national branding advertisement / reputation management effort in Times Square ceases. The promotional videos screened 300 times per day, from January 17 to February 14, reminding passers-by of China’s greatness and accomplishment a total of 8,400 times. The ads coincided with a visit from China’s President, Hu Jintao, who reportedly went to discuss matters of currency value and market access. However, lying on the backburner were topics like military threats, internet controls, trade deficit, intellectual property rights and human rights.
Of course, the advertisements portrayed a much prettier picture of China – glorifying national celebrities, artists and entrepreneurs. But the strategy didn’t seem to produce the desired effect and received more criticism than compliments by both Chinese and Americans. So where did the ad go wrong?
The following text is a compilation of views and opinions that were published throughout the duration of China’s Times Square ad campaign (and an old book, which I also found relevant).
Vice Chairman of the China Advertising Association of Commerce, Jin Dinghai, told reporters that the video could help reduce prejudices and misunderstandings that some western countries hold against China. However, the masses have spoken that the video wasn’t enough. In fact, Loretta Chao of the Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report says the video actually did more harm than good. She supports her argument with the words of David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia (strategic communications consultancy), “by flaunting material accomplishments, China is effectively giving American’s "the finger".”
Hong Kong journalist and commentator, Frank Ching notes that “China’s image has taken a beating in recent months, with its tough talk to the United States and Japan, its defense of North Korea and its attacks on the Norwegian Nobel Committee for honoring imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. Meanwhile, pressure on the Chinese government both from within the country and abroad has increased.”
Some Sina Weibo users responded to the national ad with pride, but many others dismissed the message as typical propaganda. In a country where mainstream media outlets are often criticized for excessive government influence, many people have become cynical.
Chinese netizens also pointed out that the US pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo portrayed a happy and rewarding life in America without featuring any celebrities or elites. Meanwhile, Peyton Craighill of the Washington Post writes, “The possible reason why the US cares so little about promoting itself is that it needs no promotional clips to project its image. After all, products labeled ‘made-in-US’ are valued highly across the world.” Peyton continues, “Though China's comprehensive national power has risen rapidly, the influence of ‘made-in-China’ products has not grown in proportion to its exports.”
The 2006 book, Branding China: The Ultimate Challenge in Reputation Management? by Theresa Loo and Gary Davies, focused on the importance of reputation management as China “goes global” in order to shape its national brand and enhance the competitiveness of its economy and products. They identified the nation’s complexity, contradictions and enormity as challenges for brand coherence, which are even more evident today as China continues to rapidly develop.
Yu Shanshan of Beijing Today says, “It’s also important to remember that China is different from the United States in that it won’t allow privately run public relations agencies to get involved in national image promotion. Such work is instead usually planned by universities, research institutes and government agencies, all organizations that aren’t typically profit-driven and which use only funds provided by the government. As a result, efficiency tends to be low, and the promotional campaigns are usually relatively unsophisticated.”
The exact figures relaying the cost of China’s ambitious ad in the heart of New York City’s theatre district and Midtown Manhattan tourist spectacle are left to the imagination. Yet, regardless of its effectiveness, the ad definitely drew some attention.