China turns to Madison Avenue for an image makeover
Plagued by recalls of toxic toys, poison pet food and other products, and facing rising trade barriers for its exports, China is taking a page from the American corporate playbook. It has hired a Madison Avenue ad agency to help burnish its image.
In what is believed to be Beijing’s first global ad campaign, a television commercial now airing on CNN in the U.S., Asia and Europe portrays satisfied consumers enjoying Chinese-made goods. It also touts the notion that China’s manufacturing prowess benefits nations around the globe.
The 30-second spot using Western actors is set against a soft-rock melody and shows the ubiquitous “Made in China” label on a series of products -- with a twist. A jogger laces up running shoes whose tag reads “Made in China with American sports technology.” A refrigerator is stamped with “Made in China with European styling.” Two teenage girls dance at a bus stop listening to MP3 players labeled “Made in China with software from Silicon Valley.” And a model vamps for the camera in a slinky dress that’s “Made in China with French designers.”
A voice-over in American-accented English ends the ad by saying, “When it says ‘Made in China,’ it really means ‘Made in China, made with the world.’ ” Not a single Chinese face or factory appears.
The spot was funded by a group of Chinese trade associations and China’s Ministry of Commerce, which in a statement said the campaign was designed to promote Chinese goods “objectively.” The ministry hired the Chinese arm of DDB, one of the largest multinational ad firms with headquarters in Manhattan, to help craft its message.
DDB and Chinese officials declined to discuss the commercial. But experts said the campaign is an effort to defuse rising trade tension between China and its Western trading partners, many of whom are struggling with high unemployment and idle factories while China’s economy hums. Some nations are becoming more aggressive in their efforts to combat what they see as unfair practices that have helped China siphon millions of global manufacturing jobs on its way to becoming the world’s factory floor.
The European Union last month asked the World Trade Organization to look at China’s export restrictions on key raw materials such as bauxite, which they say raises the prices for foreign buyers and gives Chinese firms a low-cost manufacturing advantage. The United States, whose trade deficit with China was nearly $166 billion through the first nine months of the year, recently slapped tariffs on low-cost Chinese-made tires and steel pipe.
Chinese government officials have publicly criticized such moves as protectionism. But the new ad campaign shows that Beijing is also experimenting with a subtler, softer approach.
It’s “a reflection of how the government is beginning to realize the importance of public perception,” said James Zimmerman, a Beijing business community leader and partner in the law firm Squire Sanders & Dempsey, which represents multinationals in China. “If the Chinese government retained experts to help manage its message, this is a positive and constructive step.”
Others believe the spot is an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the “Made in China” label by drawing attention to the heavy involvement of foreigners in Chinese-made products. U.S. and European firms have invested billions setting up low-cost manufacturing operations in China.
Although some Chinese factories have been linked to the production of dangerous toys, melamine-tainted pet food and other shoddy products, many produce high-quality goods for well-known companies, including Apple, Nike and Caterpillar.
“When you talk about products in China, you think of lesser quality than the U.S. and Europe,” said Li Fei, a professor of marketing at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “By connecting them internationally, you’re saying they’re equal.”
Still, burnishing the image of Chinese goods won’t be easy. Shortly after DDB won the contract to create the campaign in September, China was roiled by a high-profile milk scandal in which dairy producers sickened thousands of children with a chemical additive. A representative of DDB denied reports that the campaign was postponed as a result of the problem.
In the U.S., Chinese drywall is suspected of making U.S. homeowners sick and corroding pipes and wires. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a major investigation after receiving hundreds of complaints from consumers in more than 30 states.
The agency is also scrutinizing Chinese-made all-terrain vehicles over concerns that faulty brakes and sharp handlebars could injure young riders. About 800 have been recalled since last summer.
Some critics say China’s ad campaign is misdirected and that the Ministry of Commerce and the trade groups would do better to focus their efforts on improving manufacturing practices in China rather than spending time trying to sway opinion overseas.
“Most people would be pretty cynical about” the campaign, said Paul Midler, author of “Poorly Made in China,” a book that examined how Chinese manufacturers’ drive for bigger profits often compromised quality. “I’m not sure using PR can turn the tide and change behavior.”
Even some Chinese citizens believe the government is wasting its time. Commenting on the commercial, a blogger named Liu Wenxin put it succinctly: “ ‘Made in China’ is not a phrase worth showing off.”
Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst in Beijing, doubts that the marketing effort represents any high-level policy change. News of the ad campaign was relegated mainly to English-language newspapers in China, rather than influential publications read by Communist Party cadres. And no prominent official is leading the effort, which took 14 months to launch.
“I’m not convinced this is a broad new trend,” Moses said. “It looks like a group of concerned officials, associations and parts of the bureaucracy finally getting around to doing something they were asked to do a long time ago.”
Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.