BEIJING — Plagued by product recalls including toxic toys and poison pet food, 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's believed to be China's first global ad campaign, a television commercial airing on CNN in the United States, 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 "Made in China" label on a series of products — only with a twist. A jogger laces 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."
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 hired the Chinese arm of DDB, one of the largest multinational ad companies 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 diffuse trade tension between China and its Western trading partners, some of which are becoming more aggressive in efforts to combat what they see as unfair practices that have helped China siphon millions of global manufacturing jobs.
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 of Squire Sanders & Dempsey, which represents multinationals in China.
Others say the spot is an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the "Made in China" label by drawing attention to the involvement of foreigners in Chinese-made products. U.S. and European companies have invested billions in low-cost manufacturing operations in China.
Burnishing the image of Chinese goods won't be easy. In the United States, imported drywall is suspected of making homeowners sick by corroding pipes and wires. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a major investigation following hundreds of complaints by consumers in more than 30 states, including Florida.
Some critics say 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 manufacturers' profit drives often compromised quality. "I'm not sure using PR can turn the tide and change behavior."