In the Hutong
Trying to be impressionable
I am a qualified China fan but a detractor of advertising in general, so it was with some trepidation that I read in Gady Epstein’s blog at Forbes.com that China was planning on a TV ad campaign as a means of making China less threatening to Americans. As Gady pointed out, it was bound to be a tough sell, and for my part I subscribe to the theory that advertising is a fine tool to defend a strong brand, but a lousy one to build or re-build a weak or tainted one.
Now, I am working from an assumption that the American people were the audience, here. The fact that this may not have been the case I deal with below.
Start with the Audience, Guys
Having watched the first effort, I have to confess to being underwhelmed. It is not abysmal, but it is still a profound disappointment. The production values were fine, and the general direction of giving China a human face is a step in the right direction. But the ad struck me as so much self-conscious preening, a request if not a demand for respect, rather than than a friendly, human face.
There are, I know, many Chinese who love the ad, and cannot understand what the problem is. Which, in fact, is the problem. The ad, ostensibly, was not meant for Chinese but American eyes. Whoever approved the ad missed one of the first principles uber-adman David Ogilvy spells out in his 1983 classic Ogilvy on Advertising:
“Now comes research among consumers. Find out how they think about your kind of product, what language they use when they discuss the subject, what attributes are important to them, and what promise would be most likely to make them buy your brand.” [Italics his]
If China was trying to sell itself to the American people, did it know what Americans were ready to “buy?” Because it seemed like the ad was trying to say “look at us – we’re strong, beautiful, and rich, so you’d better make friends with us.”
This sort of message likely to fall flat outside of the Panda-hugger crowd. Indeed, it is a pretty good example a “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” campaign rather than a “hi, let’s be friends” campaign. And if it was designed to make friends, I would bet the government will learn pretty quickly that it failed to work as promised.
Don’t Blame the Agency
While it would be easy to blame the ad agency or producer of the ad for this (and they may wind up tossed under the virtual truck if their client thinks the ad fell flat), I would wager the problem is at least as much, if not more, on the client side.
Client executives who are new to the ad game tend to fall in love with ads, slogans, and messages that tell them what THEY like to hear, not what will move their audiences.That is, unfortunately, human nature, and in fact what separates a good marketer from your average Zhou is not so much the possession of special skills or knowledge, but the deep empathy for and understanding of group of people and the ability to substitute their preferences for your own. China’s government and business leaders have yet to demonstrate this skill, much less an instinctive feel for the Yankee Zeitgeist.
Make Next Time Better
In my conversation with Loretta Chao from The Wall Street Journal I said we need to expect these sorts of missteps. The Chinese government is caught in that vast chasm between understanding they must communicate with the peoples of the world and being able to do so effectively. We have to expect its initial efforts to be ham-handed, and sometimes laughably so. But we have to applaud their effort, because it reflects their realization that they actually need our trust and support to reach their goals.
What I hope is that the agency and the State Council Information Office commission some really good research on the effectiveness of the ad, understanding what went right and what went wrong, and hopefully winding up with a clearer idea of what China needs say (and, more important, do) in order to earn the friendship and trust of the American people.
And I hope they realize that soft power does not come out of an advertising campaign. You build it by representing to the people of the world something admirable, desirable, and attractive. Soft power is, after all, like sex appeal on a national scale: it is more a reflection of who you are than how you talk about yourself, and if you say you have it, you probably don’t.
Finally, I think it is time that the Party realizes that as China rises, the nation’s audiences now extend far past its borders. It is, therefore, time to identify and promote capable cadres who can communicate well across national boundaries.
Maybe the Echo was the Message…
I note above that the ad was “ostensibly” for American audience. We have to entertain in our critique of this campaign the possibility that the real audience for this campaign was actually Chinese.
It is a not uncommon practice in China to say something to overseas audiences or do something in overseas that is actually done with a view to the effect the message or the action will have when it echoes back into China. This is called “chukou zhuan nei xiao,” or exporting something to sell it at home. We do this in corporate communications in China, and the government (and dissidents) have made it a fine art.
It may well be that the most important effect of this campaign as it was designed was to show the Chinese people that the government is spending money to project a strong, proud image abroad. Indeed, it is possible that an ad designed to cater to US audiences would have come across at home as “weak” or too craven to the foreigners.
If the ad was designed with the Echo Effect at the top of the minds of the officials that okayed it, it was actually not a bad campaign.
…if so, that’s a Bigger Problem
But then it brings up a larger, more troubling issue, which is the growing disconnect between China’s self-image and the image it projects abroad.
A nation that conducts its diplomacy – and especially its public diplomacy – so as to cater to domestic audiences is placing its international relations into deep jeopardy. America did so under Bush and in so doing frivolously squandered its soft power.
The statesmen of a powerful nation must endeavor to create a nation of statesmen, communicating to build a strong domestic constituency to support locally politically unpopular but globally essential diplomacy. History is replete with examples, and the one that pops most readily to mind is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease act.
Coming to this realization is going to be one of the painful parts of China’s maturation as a world power. It will be fascinating to watch how long it will take the Party to confront this particular quandary.