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Corporate America at the Shanghai World Expo

Rob Schmitz Aug 24, 2010

Corporate America at the Shanghai World Expo

Rob Schmitz Aug 24, 2010


Bill Radke: The biggest world’s fair in history is underway right now in Shanghai. About 70 million people will visit the Shanghai Expo before it ends in October. And presumably, a bunch of them will stop by the United States Pavilion, which almost didn’t get built in the first place. It seems American law prohibits the federal government from funding a pavilion for World’s Fairs. So dozens of corporate sponsors stepped in.

And the result? Well we’ll let our Shanghai Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz tell you about that.

Rob Schmitz: After standing in line for two hours, the first thing Chinese visitors see inside the U.S. pavilion is a film of Americans butchering the Chinese language.

Americans trying to speak Chinese

The rest of the pavilion is much less straight-forward. The next movie begins with a little girl’s dream.

Little girl: I made a car that runs by fruit juice…

It’s sort of cute, until her dream is interrupted by an adult — an adult representing the oil company Chevron. Its logo flashes on the screen.

Woman: The world needs energy to grow and prosper: Oil and natural gas, geothermal, solar…

Jeff Wasserstrom: That struck a very sour note for me.

Historian Jeff Wasserstrom is author of “China in the 21st Century.”

Wasserstrom: It seemed too much like an advertisement for products or for companies, for brands stuck in there in a way that just didn’t make much sense.

A far cry from, say, the French Pavilion. There you’ll find masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay and a typical French kitchen. The Spanish Pavilion has flamenco dancers. More than 50 American corporations donated $61 million to fund the U.S. Pavilion. A wall of their logos is the first thing you see when you enter, and a gallery of corporate exhibits guards the exit. Boeing. Dow Chemical. Wal-Mart. The “no smoking” signs are sponsored by Pfizer.

Adam Minter is author of the blog Shanghai Scrap.

Adam Minter: On one level, you can just say it’s terrible and a national embarrassment. On the second level, you can say it’s the perfect embodiment of where American public diplomacy is today. It’s largely been outsourced to people who have a financial interest in promoting their own agenda over the U.S. agenda.

Money talks even when it comes to a map of the United States. The map in the pavilion identifies only Texas, Tennessee and Hawaii. Why? They’re the only states that donated money. There’s been no shortage of critics of the pavilion, even at the highest levels. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two-word reaction after visiting the pavilion was, “It’s fine.”

Martin Alintuck: I don’t agree with the criticism that this is too corporate.

Martin Alintuck is CEO of the USA National Pavilion. He says the pavilion may not be perfect, but at least it was built. Public funding is impossible without a specific appropriation from Congress, which never happened. He says Americans should be thankful corporations ponied up. Plus…

Alintuck: It’s very hard to say to a company, “We want millions of your dollars, but you’re not going to get to put your logo up” or “You’re not going to be able to talk to the people who go through here.”

Sound of Chinese tourists in the USA Pavilion

It may be less than perfect to American eyes. But I talked to more than a dozen Chinese visitors. I asked them to resist their urge to be polite and give me a no-holds barred review. No one had a bad word to say. This, after all, is a population that grew up surrounded by Communist Party propaganda. As consumers, they’re bombarded with advertising from all sides.

Here’s visitor Zhu Shan Bin exiting the pavilion.

Zhu Shan Bin: It shows us the American spirit, which is multi-cultural and filled with imagination and creativity. From the movies here, I see Americans value children and a good education.

Now that is some brilliant corporate messaging.

In Shanghai, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

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