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U.S. Firms Test-Surf China Central TV Airwaves : Marketing: The world’s biggest public TV network is airing 10-minute ‘infomercials’ for Philip Morris, Pepsico, GM, Walt Disney and others.

From Reuters

When a Chinese American promoter offered 10 minutes of unfettered and virtually free air time aimed at a television audience of up to a quarter of a billion Chinese, executives of Philip Morris Cos. leaped into action.

“We saw this as a chance for very broad exposure to our products,” said Donald Harris, a vice president who oversees the conglomerate’s cigarette, beer and food promotions in Asia.

The result might best be called China’s first infomercials, those advertisements dressed up as public affairs shows that have become fixtures of American late-night television.

In an unprecedented marketing coup, the 10-minute shows--scripted, filmed and financed by Philip Morris and six other U.S. firms--appear on the world’s biggest public TV network, state-run China Central Television, not as product promotions but as “corporate profiles” on a news show.

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“This is not really a Marlboro commercial,” Harris said at a ceremony in late January kicking off the series at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the seat of Communist Party power.

“But it is about all of the products Philip Morris makes, the kind of work we do around the world, along with a bit about our management and corporate philosophy,” he said.

Slick offerings in Chinese featuring General Motors Corp., Pepsico, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., American Telephone & Telegraph Corp. and Walt Disney Co. fill out the first batch of profiles. All are aggressive China players or plan major investments there. Twenty-two other firms are filming their own profiles.

The profiles, neither advertisements nor documentaries, feature company workers proudly discussing what they say are world-class products that management hopes to sell in China.

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Disney Asia chief John Feenie said he was thrilled to have what he called a China-wide “showcase” for the entertainment giant’s products and services.

This unprecedented Western corporate access to China’s tightly controlled airwaves is just one measure of how much the nation’s media have changed in 15 years of market-building reforms.

Once the exclusive domain of propagandists, television and radio with their vast audiences are seen more as a commercial gold mine than a tool of communist thought control.

China’s airwaves are up for sale--and the cash-starved government is eagerly exploiting its increasingly lucrative monopoly.

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Commercial ads, unthinkable before reform architect Deng Xiaoping unleashed the consumer economy in 1979, are now staples on TV and radio around the clock.

They give many peasants their first glimpse of China’s nascent capitalist middle class, with its luxurious homes, cars, designer outfits, cellular phones and $200 bottles of Cognac.

One roaring success is Beijing Television’s “TV Shopping” show in which state reporters venture from store to store, breathlessly extolling products in exchange for hefty fees.

Viewers are still subjected to tightly censored news broadcasts. But they also enjoy an ever wider choice of programs, and happily channel-surf past the propaganda to shows they like, particularly those dealing with China’s new consumerism.

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Robert Wang, a Chinese American entrepreneur, persuaded CCTV to air the company profiles on its “Economics Half Hour,” which commands a loyal audience of 80 million and can reach as many as 250 million consumers.

Wang, whose media consultant firm Yellow Line has an exclusive CCTV contract to produce the programs, sees the arrangement as a potentially lucrative foot in China’s door.

“Media is very, very important in China. . . . Everything is under tight party control and you have to find a way in,” he said. “Whoever has this inner channel is the one who will profit. For us this is a long-term thing.”

The scheme is also lucrative for CCTV.

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The state organ not only gets the programs for free, avoiding prohibitive overseas production costs, but it also collects a modest broadcast fee paid for by the U.S. corporations profiled.


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