Official Chinese Media Campaign Falls Short

The ‘Chinese Friendship’ ad in Times Square Shen Hong / Xinhua-Corbis

Coinciding with President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington this week, the Chinese government has gone on a charm offensive, unleashing an advertisement campaign on Times Square and American TV to correct the "incomplete understandings" the American public has about the country.

But if the intent is to teach Americans about the Chinese, the campaign falls woefully short.

Despite months of preparation and millions of dollars sunk into this project, the campaign has created more confusion than enlightenment.

For one thing, the ad falls victim to its own ambitions: it tries to express what China is in 60 seconds, something a tad difficult for a country that boasts 1.4 billion people, 56 ethnicities, and a history that stretches back 5,000 years. "I think it is not necessary to make such a big advertisement," says Sun Zhe, head of the Sino-American Affairs Research Institute at Tsinghua University. He cites advertisements that the governments of Singapore and Malaysia released that focus on aviation or tourism as a counterexample of something manageable.

And while official Chinese media reports have played up the prestige of having an advertisement in Times Square, do people in China actually care? "Generally speaking, ordinary Chinese are not interested in these advertisements," says Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "I think doing propaganda and advertisements are not as good as doing something practical and realistic. If the government can guarantee human rights in China, it will be the best advertisement."

Then there is the ad itself—hardly offensive fare but unlikely to inspire Americans to learn Mandarin. Have you heard of rocket scientist Sun Jiadong? What about pop singer Liu Huan or CCTV anchor Jing Yidan? Chances are neither have a lot of Americans. Yet they all feature in the ad, but we learn nothing about them, other than that they're Chinese, successful, and ostensibly friendly. Jing stands in front of a world map with three other Chinese TV personalities. The screen flashes "Captivating Chinese Dialogue." Jing clasps her hands. The ad ends with hundreds of Chinese faces melting into China, and the words 'Chinese Friendship.'"

While the production values are good, it's amazing how boring it can be watching 60 seconds of people smiling. And given that the film will be shown in Times Square roughly 8,400 times between now and Valentine's Day, one Chinese Twitter-user worried that after having to watch this video over and over Times Square hot-dog vendors "will loathe China deep in their bones."