China makes its mark with Times Square ads

Updated: 2012-02-27 07:34

By Cheng Guangjin and Ma Liyao (China Daily)

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BEIJING / NEW YORK - Walking through Times Square in Midtown Manhattan, you could get lost in the multitude of messages carried by billboards on the surrounding skyscrapers.

One of them - a 19-meter-high by 12-meter-wide screen at 2 Times Square, the building that is the northern anchor of the district - displays images from China.

China makes its mark with Times Square ads

Videos promoting China are displayed on screens at Times Square in New York on Jan 17. [Photo/China Daily]

Since August 2011, the screen has been displaying videos promoting Xinhua News Agency and the cultural attractions of cities including Shanghai, as well as advertisements for Chinese companies such as Wuliangye Liquor.

An estimated 500,000 people pass through the square each day.

However, critics have questioned how much of an impact the "China screen" will have on passers-by.

Erdos Group, a leading cashmere company based in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region, advertised on the screen in January.

Tana Dai, deputy general manager of the group, told China Daily that the company started a brand upgrading strategy in 2008 and chose Times Square as the beginning of its overseas advertising campaign.

"Advertising on Times Square, which gathers many world-class brands, would be a good choice for Erdos to upgrade its brand," said Dai.

Dai declined to reveal how much the company paid for the one-month advertisement that was contracted to Xinhua Gallery Media Co Ltd.

The space had been occupied for the past decade by the HSBC bank before its lease expired, according to The New York Times. The building at 2 Times Square also features ads from Prudential, Coca-Cola, Samsung and Hyundai.

Xinhua Gallery Media is a wholly owned subsidiary of Xinhua News Agency, the biggest news agency in China, which moved its North American news operations to 1540 Broadway at the center of New York City last year.

Requests to the company for an interview were rejected.

China makes its mark with Times Square ads

"Leasing the ad space promotes brands and enhances the image of Xinhua Gallery," Zhang Xiaojun, general manager of Xinhua Gallery Media, was quoted by Xinhua as saying when the screen made its debut in August 2011.

He said the screen would show videos from Xinhua News Agency and its corporations including China Xinhua News Network Corporation, China Finance Corporation, China Image Corporation and China Enews Company, as well as advertisements for companies and cities across China.

While more and more China-related images are displayed at Times Square, the advertisers may still need to work on the messages they convey in order to increase the value of their publicity.

Not all passers-by have noticed the screen and some of those who did pay attention to the ads confessed they were a little bit confused about what the commercials intended to convey.

"I don't know what the ads want to express and why they put them here," said Anna Setaro, a New York woman who works for a local company as a human resources director.

"People here see too much information (on the screens on Broadway) and they are overloaded with this information, so I don't know whether it is an effective way to impress people," she added.

Jamal Baba, a 24-year-old who works at the square as an information officer, said he did notice a few Chinese ads playing on the screen and said they were pretty good.

"I read those big ads all the time. Probably there are going to (be) more Chinese ads there. They must be expensive but worth the cost," Bata said.

Huang Si, a Chinese student in New York, said that she did see the Chinese ads, but had no particular feelings about them.

"When I passed the Xinhua ads, I just thought wow, Xinhua is rich," Huang said. "It is a means to raise its public profile, but I doubt how many people will actually pay attention."

"China now wants to show the importance of its relations with the US, so advertising at Times Square is an effective way because it that says you've come to the US in a big way," said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

The appearance of the Xinhua screen was not the first time that Chinese images have been shown on a significant landmark in New York.

In the mid-1990s, the 999 Pharmaceutical Company leased a painted vinyl sign above two buildings at the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 48th Street.

During President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States at the beginning of 2011, the Chinese government ran promotional commercials on six large screens featuring familiar Chinese faces including Yao Ming, a popular basketball star, and famous pianist Lang Lang.

Earlier this month, a 30-second video welcoming Vice-President Xi Jinping's visit to the US was shown on a giant screen overlooking the square opposite the Xinhua billboard.

"I think the Xinhua billboard is a turning point. More Chinese ads are seen here now," Tompkins said.

Times Square always has a strong Asian presence, said Tompkins, pointing out that big Japanese firms such as Sony and Toyota advertise there, as well brands from South Korea, including Samsung and Kia.

There is often a degree of controversy regarding ads at Times Square, Tompkins said, noting examples such as the first big men's underwear ad, and a clock aiming at criticizing the huge US debt.

There's nothing unusual if there is controversy about Chinese ads, he said.

Controversy or criticism of the content of an ad is actually part of its expected effect, said He Hui, a professor with the Public Relations and Public Opinion Institute of the Communication University of China.

Although billboards on Times Square are good value for advertisers, He said they should comprehensively consider factors including timing, the nature of the products, the target audience, costs and possible returns.

Chen Weixing, director of the Center for International Communication Studies at Communication University of China, said although advertising at Times Square is a good way to get more publicity, "it is not the best way, especially in an era when people have abundant means of transferring information and obtaining news".

Wang Chao and Zhao Lei in New York contributed to this story.

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