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Kai Ryssdal: If you see “Made in China” on something you’re buying, or thinking about buying, one of two things probably happens. You don’t think twice about it. Or you do. And then you think of the recent scandals over tainted baby food and lead paint on kids toys and you go buy something else. Beijing knows that. So it’s turned to a Madison Avenue PR firm to help rebrand its image. A 30-second ad running on CNN that shows “Made in China” labels on a bunch of products and then tag lines underneath. Things like “Made in China with American technology” or “Made in China with European styling.” And then you hear this:
AD: When it says “Made in China,” it really means “Made in China, made with the world.”
The Chinese Ministry of Commerce says the ad is designed to promote Chinese goods objectively. Jay Wang teaches strategic communications at USC. Professor, it’s good to have you with us.
JAY WANG: Thank you.
Ryssdal: So first things first, do you think this ad is going to work?
WANG: Well, I don’t think it will work because in the advertising world we always have a saying that half of the ad budget is wasted, but we don’t know which half. And in this particular case we are addressing a far more complex issue. There are multiple layers of the “Made in China” label, all the way from it’s a poor quality, cheap price, to more political issues of job losses for American workers. So a 30-second spot is not going to be enough to address all of these issues.
Ryssdal: Well, then, why try it in the first place?
WANG: Well, it’s still worth trying because the central argument made in this particular campaign is that we should think in light of not “Made in China,” but “Made with China.” And I think it’s a valid argument because if you look at the contemporary business process, it is true that the made-in label is kind of antiquated because we engage business partners from all over the world to make a product and to sell a product. So from that perspective, yes, it is an important message, it’s an important argument to make. On the other hand, it does not address some of the underlying issues that I just mentioned earlier.
Ryssdal: Obviously they are advertising to American audiences here, right? But let me turn that around a little bit and ask you if you think there’s sort of a domestic Chinese audience for this as well. That the Chinese government is trying to convince the Chinese people that what they make there is worthwhile.
WANG: Certainly. There is an important domestic audience in mind I think for any of these Chinese international outreach programs these days because all the scandals with these poor-quality products from China. All the negative associations with “Made in China” had been reported in China and in the last few years that there were lots of discontents with Chinese domestic consumers, with Chinese-made products as well. So for the Chinese government it is very important to shore up this image of China so that in return the Chinese public will be more satisfied in many ways with how the government is handling China’s image overseas.
Ryssdal: So do you think this is going to work? This rebranding, if you will, of the “Made in China” image. Is it going to work domestically?
WANG: Well it certainly puts pressure I think on the Chinese producers, and the pressure comes from the Chinese consumers because they have higher expectations, more demanding. And in return the producers are more likely to be more responsible in their business practices.
Ryssdal: So back to the bigger point, then, of how this ad might play in the American consumers’ mind. If a 30-second ad isn’t going to do it on a trillion-dollar economic relationship, what will?
WANG: Well it takes a lot of conversations, discussions. And I haven’t seen other components of this particular campaign, because I just thought that this would be a good thought starter, as opposed to just a stand-alone effort, so there needs to be a lot more conversation, discussions on this issue. Because the message is emphasizing collaboration, integration, which I believe better captures the business realities these days, and the relationship between the U.S. and China.
Ryssdal: Jay Wang, he’s a professor of strategic communications at the Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism, just down the street. Professor, thanks for coming in.
WANG: Well, thank you. My pleasure.
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