Creative Marketing by Those Cruel Americans
In the fall of 1980, the first US National Exhibition in China was held at the old Beijing Exhibition Hall next to the Beijing zoo.
The architecture of this building, like its counterpart in Shanghai, had a strong Soviet flavor to it, not unlike China’s foreign trade system at the time. Centrally controlled foreign trade corporations, each a monopoly in one sector, managed directly under China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade, carried out import and export business strictly according to the national plan.
Foreign investment had been taboo, so lawyers, accountants and bankers still had a very limited role to play compared with a few years later, when the Open Door policy enabled the first stages of foreign investment.
The first US national exhibition was quite a big and colorful affair. It was historic as well, since it followed the normalization of US-China relations early in the previous year.
Many Fortune 500 companies as well as medium-sized American companies displayed all sorts of products and told their corporate stories through print and video presentations. More than 75 tons of Chinese language brochures and catalogues were produced and distributed during the five-day event.
Chinese consumers eagerly and enthusiastically snapped up color brochures in those days because their typical daily media environment was still dominated by black and white images.
One big American truck manufacturer had a creative idea. They prepared their company’s story in Chinese, and then had one of their employees, a Chinese-speaking, red-haired American fellow (who happened to be a classmate of mine), recite this presentation while wearing a baseball cap with their company logo on it.
His presentation was then filmed, and projected onto a mannikin’s head inside a small booth specially designed for this purpose. The effect was like a primitive version of a hologram: it looked at first glance like a real “talking head” inside the small box, but with red hair, wearing a baseball cap, and speaking in Chinese.
This was cutting edge audio-visual stuff at the time.
Since this booth was located near the main entrance, it attracted a lot of attention from Chinese visitors, who included people from all walks of life who were fortunate or “connected” enough to obtain tickets to the show.
One afternoon I was standing near the front of this display and two older Chinese gentlemen in blue jackets stopped to watch this curious display of the Chinese speaking, redheaded foreigner. They watched for quite some time, in silence, and a sense of puzzlement.
Finally one old chap said to the other: “How can the Americans keep their staff member locked up in such a small box all day, every day. They treat their employees in such a cruel manner!” The other one nodded his agreement, and they moved on to the next exhibit.
Elsewhere during the exhibition, the bosses of one American company were severely criticized by Chinese authorities for overly exciting Chinese consumers and endangering public safety in the process. The walls and frame. of their booth collapsed under pressure from the throngs of Chinese visitors drawing close, after a rumor swept the crowd that they were selling inexpensive English language learning products for RMB cash, directly from their booth.