National image lights up Times Square

By Chen Weihua in New York and Li Lianxing and Duan Yan in Beijing (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-19 07:55
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 National image lights up Times Square
A promotional video on China illuminates New York's Times Square as it debuts on Monday to coincide with President Hu Jintao's US visit this week. The 60-second video - which features basketball superstar Yao Ming and astronaut Yang Liwei, among other celebrities - will be shown 300 times daily for the next month. Shen Hong / Xinhua

 National image lights up Times Square
The screen at Times Square shows scenes from a 1-minute looped commercial that has been specially made for "China Experience", a promotional display that is part of a major campaign to promote a truer image of China abroad. The commercial features some of China's most famous faces, including Yao Ming. Sun Yuting / China News Service

National image lights up Times Square

Grand New York display aims at promoting understanding. Chen Weihua in New York and Li Lianxing and Duan Yan in Beijing report.

As advertising spaces go, you cannot get much more high profile than New York's iconic Times Square.

An estimated 1.7 million people pass through the landmark every day, making it a prime location to promote major brands - or, in China's case, a national image.

On Monday, there was a new addition to the usual billboards for Coca-Cola and Samsung: a 50-meter display called "China Experience", a looped 1-minute promotional video featuring some of the nation's most famous faces.

The display, which opened a day before President Hu Jintao's arrival for a four-day state visit to the United States, is part of a major campaign to promote China's image among Americans.

Also included in the project is a 30-second commercial to be aired on US television and a 30-minute documentary, according to the State Council Information Office.

Experts welcomed the move on Tuesday, including one professor who told China Daily he hopes the project will undo some of the damage caused by anti-Chinese advertisements used by several candidates during last November's mid-term elections in the US.

The promo in Times Square, which will run until Feb 14, features a range of successful people, such as NBA basketball star Yao Ming, pianist Lang Lang, film director John Woo, hybrid rice scientist Yuan Longping and Alibaba founder Jack Ma. It also features ordinary Chinese from across the country.

Wang Lijun, assistant to the chairman at Shanghai Lowe & Partners, the advertising firm behind the production, said people from various specialties were selected for the campaign "because they represent the optimistic, upwardly mobile spirit of contemporary China".

Some of the celebrities chosen to appear even expressed their surprise at the invitation to take part.

"I never thought I would be chosen as my audience is mainly Chinese," said Chen Luyu, a popular talk show host often referred to as China's Oprah Winfrey. (Incidentally, Oprah appears on a billboard for the OWN channel opposite "China Experience".)

"Now I realize that my responsibility is to let the outside world hear Chinese voices," added Chen.

Data obtained by China Daily shows that the 30-second commercial will be aired 48 times - up to four times a day - on CNN, the 24-hour news channel, until Feb 13.

The 30-minute documentary, which was also funded by the central government, is also a mix of celebrities and ordinary citizens, with each offering a glimpse of the country's politics, economy or society.

According to a report by Guangming Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper, one scene shows ethnic youngsters using cell phones in a remote, mountainous area of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, while another has a man catching fish with cormorants in the picturesque southern city of Guilin.

"These scenes illustrate social changes and sustainable development," director Gao Xiaolong told Guangming Daily.

The documentary and advertisements will be shown in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Initial media reports suggested the BBC World Service had already scheduled the campaign. However, a spokesman for the broadcaster said via e-mail that the corporation has "not signed an agreement" with the State Council's Information Office.

Long-term vision

Analysts in China have in the main responded positively to the Times Square billboard promo, as well as wider plans to promote a truer image of China abroad.

"Advertising is a crucial platform to let people know about (a brand)," said Huang Shengmin, dean of China University of Communication's school of advertising. "This project is a milestone to signal that China is now open to embrace the world."

Launching the campaign to coincide with Hu's visit to the US was "a very smart choice", he said, adding: "It is difficult to evaluate what extent these commercials and the documentary will promote China's new image, but one thing is for sure: it's a long-term project."

This is not the first time China has produced advertisements to air overseas. In 2009, the Ministry of Commerce made a 30-second short about Chinese companies working with foreign partners to produce quality products. That film was also broadcast on CNN.

However, experts say the timing of the latest effort is vital, as it comes roughly just two months after US midterm candidates ran a series of "China-bashing" advertisements to push their agendas against their rivals and the White House administration.

One of the campaigns featured a Chinese professor teaching a class of laughing students in a dystopian future in which China rules the global economy, while others simply accused political rivals of attempting to take US jobs to China.

"It is important to promote China in the US, especially during a time when Chinese and Americans have a huge perception gap," said Niu Xinchun, a US studies specialist at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

"Many Americans, for example, think China's rise is taking away US jobs, and there were lots of negative views about China during the midterms. So it's important for both sides to facilitate communication through mass media and among its peoples."

Last week, the Pew Research Center published a study that found 20 percent of Americans see China as a global threat, while 22 percent feel the country is an adversary. Yet, the same research also showed that 58 percent believe it is "very important" to build stronger ties between China and the US.

A survey of Chinese residents jointly conducted by China Daily and Horizon Research Consultancy Group, also published last week, revealed that the number who view Beijing's ties with Washington as "very important" has doubled in the past year, while most believe relations will remain stable or improve despite recent turbulence.

"These commercials are pretty good and are catered to Western viewers and ideas," added Niu. "I think it's a good idea. It's time to improve (China's) image in the West."

However, YuGuoming, vice-dean of Renmin University of China's school of journalism, said he feels the country would be better served by efforts to foster a culture of understanding, rather than simply relying on advertising campaigns.

Yu suggested the first thing should be to help people overseas to understand that the Chinese people "are not monsters" by promoting shared values.

Regarding the anti-Chinese midterm campaigns, he added: "US politicians using anti-China rhetoric to attract voters is nothing new. (Chinese people) shouldn't take these campaigns too seriously. Most politicians are rational in their dealings with China once they're elected, so we don't need to care too much about them playing political games during elections."

View from the street

Initial reactions to the "China Experience" display in Times Square and the CNN spots was mixed among tourists and New Yorkers on Monday.

"It's a very good effort," said businessman J. Robert Burgoyne after watching the 30-second promo on television. However, he suggested the advertisement should be more entertaining.

"My thoughts would be to definitely use footage of children, preferably Chinese and Western children doing something together, like dancing or (playing) sports," he said. "After the kids, I would use futuristic images, like the fast trains in China and the ultra-modern buildings."

Lane Luangxay, a student from Binghamton in the state of New York, who was traveling with a classmate, said he felt the "China Experience" showed "how much China has progressed over the years".

Meanwhile, Jay Ordan, a tourist from Atlanta, Georgia, enjoying a long weekend in the Big Apple, said the "photography is beautiful and presentation is very nice", but added that the commercial's message could be subtler.

It suggests "the best of that and the best of everything else", he said. "If you tone down a little bit, everyone will get the point."

Wang Ying in Shanghai contributed to this story.