Yes, this may seem like old news to you, but I've been offline for a few weeks and have some thoughts about the ad that weren't captured in other commentary.
I agree with the conventional wisdom that the ad tanked and did not give Americans a positive impression of China or Chinese people. The ad more than likely had the opposite effect. Yes, the people shown wore familiar "Western" clothing and did not seem exotic. And the average American might even recognize one or two of them, such as Yao Ming. But unless you watched the ad many times, anyone would have a hard time picking out individuals. As research found for me by IU political science doctoral student Edwin Way suggests, these folks look very competent, but competency often is accompanied by the quality of being cold, not compassionate.
Here's a key quote from this 2008 study by Cuddy, Fiske and Glick:
Groups perceived as warm and competent elicit uniformly positive emotions and behavior: admiration, help, and association. Those perceived as lacking both warmth and competence elicit uniform negativity: contempt, neglect, and attack. But most group stereotypes appear high on one dimension and low on the other: the ensuing ambivalent affect and volatile behavior endanger constructive intergroup relations. High warmth wth low competence yields pity and patronizing help or neglect. Low warmth with high competence evokes envy and strategic association or, under threat, attack. (p. 137).
Also significant is not only who is in the ad, but who is not. All of those shown are extremely successful, and in fact, not "typical" Chinese. Such an ad, which I think would've been more successful, would have featured farmers, migrants, construction workers, teachers, and children -- lots of children. And while red is a popular color in China, when Americans think of China and red, they have one thought -- Red China, that is, Communist China.
Why did they make these mistakes? Because it's very likely the ad's producers, like all advertising agencies, wanted to please their client -- the Chinese government. This is typical.
My mother, Karen Kennedy, who ran a successful ad agency for about two decades, reports to me that this is a typical dynamic of the profession:
It’s hard to blame the agency, even if they are from Shanghai—though I agree a really strong and principled US agency would have done a better job. The problem, I believe, lies with whomever commissioned the ad. I believe they were determined to get their way and had certain preconceived notions about how the ad should look and feel. The truth is most agencies are whores and will do what the client says; if not, the client will merely walk across the street.
And the client -- the Chinese government -- has shown repeatedly it has a hard time putting itself in the shoes of Westerners and shaping arguments they would find appealing and persuasive. As a quote from "A Father's Book of Wisdom," given to me by a local Bloomington bank says, "We do see things as they are. We see things as we are."
I can't wait for the next ad.