Monday, November 30, 2009

Kicking America while it's down?

More than a year after the product scandals that shook China's international brand image, Beijing has paid for a TV advertisement intended to put the record straight. The 30-second ad, now playing on CNN and commissioned by the Ministry of Commerce with "participation" (=money) from four industry groups, is already stirring up debate in China. International debate, I'm sure, is not long behind.

Created by DDB Guoan and hailed by unnamed experts in the China Daily as "a PR breakthrough", the ad shows how widespread Chinese-made goods are in everyday Western life. An Ipod is "Made in China with software from Silicon Valley"; a pink dress is "Made in China with French designers", an airplane is "Made in China with engineers from all over the world", running shoes are "Made in China with American Sports Technology".

The ad is fascinating on multiple levels. For one, it's the first attempt I've seen by a Chinese government ministry to defend Chinese products to the English-speaking world using a TV advertisement. I remember covering CNOOC's bid for Unocal and seeing how the Chinese failed to make their case to the Americans. So at first glance, this ad might suggest China had learned its lesson.

But the timing and message of the ad could well be unfortunate. While it's absolutely accurate to say that the world is bringing more of its design and manufacturing to China, I wonder if viewers in America will feel like China is kicking America while it's down. Americans are understandably anxious about our economic prospects right now, and to me at least, this ad seems to touch that nerve. Made in China with American technology? Factually, totally accurate. But to the average American, could it be a reminder of what America no longer does, of the fading of our own industrial glory. And could it even bring to mind some of the less savory ways that China was able to win this business? Its poor track record on the protecting the environment, labor and intellectual property rights and its management of its currency to keep its exports competitively priced, to name a few?

The most disturbing part might well turn out to be the airplane - given the national significance and economic importance of companies like Boeing and Airbus, the obvious military carryovers from the aircraft industry, and China's recent product safety scandals, I'm not sure how comfortable ordinary Americans would be with the idea that China wants to dominate airplane manufacturing the same way it has shoe making. Again, what the ad says is right: China is playing a larger role in airplane manufacturing, and it is doing it with help from foreign engineers.

Still, the commercial demonstrates the challenge China faces in crafting an intelligent message about its products, and the inherent mutual suspicions that lurk within China's relations with its major trading partners. China can speak the truth, as it does in this ad, and it can still strike the wrong chord with some people. China should be able to promote its own products without seeming to do so at the West's expense.

The ad is here and here. What do you think?


China Law said...

Very interesting. I see your point, but I absolutely did not see it your way until I read this. Even after reading this, I don't think you are being quite fair. I don't think China is kicking us down and I say that for two reasons. One, and go ahead and call me crazy, but I don't think we are down. We are in a recession and in 3-4 years we will be just fine again and I am sure of that. Two, Marcus Garvey used to say that the uplifting of one race is not the downgrading of another and I think the same is true of countries. China is right to tout what it has accomplished and it is right to seek to promote more of the same. I just don't see it doing those things as in any way being the equivalent of kicking the US when it is down.

Alexandra Harney said...

Totally fair point, China Law. I agree with you that China has every right to - and should be - touting its advantage. I just wonder, given the atmosphere in America right now, whether that's how others will see it.

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