What to make of Fidelity International's appropriation of Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda imagery — replacing Mao's Little Red Book and a gun, there are golf clubs and an iPad, for example — to pitch its China investment fund?
The digital campaign — generated by its Singapore office, where its agency must have made one helluva convincing pitch to equate the Chinese "consumer revolution" with the Cultural Revolution, in which an estimated 30 million people died — can be dismissed as creative expression based in ignorance. Still, it shows a surprising insensitivity to the region where the fund is based.
In addition to running on Fidelity's Singapore website, the Sinocism blog points out that Fidelity is running this as an online pop-up ad campaign there, too, where it appeared on the Bloomberg News website:
For comparison to the Fidelity ad, here is one of perhaps millions of cultural propaganda pieces created between 1966 and 1976, the year of Mao's death:
Fidelity's "Chinese Consumer Revolution" pitch for its fund comes replete with a "Facts & Trivia" presentation dolled up to look like the little red book, the Communist indoctrination texts that all Chinese carried and recited from for a turbulent decade.
The "Contents" of the brochure (check it out at the end of this post) include such sections as "Unite and Consume" and "The Great March to Urbanization" (a play on China revolutionaries' famous 8,000-mile long march).
Perhaps the investors the Fidelity fund is targeting don't care about the connection between the marketing images and a period in Chinese modern history many Chinese themselves would like to forget, although we'd be surprised if Fidelity hasn't received complaints.
A few observers who understand the significance of the propaganda have certainly raised their eyebrows. Adam Minter, a Shanghai-based Bloomberg contributor, caught the campaign and tweeted, "Next up: 3rd Reich imagery for German fund."
This connection to Nazi Germany is often made, even if it is not all that reasonable. Yet the larger point is there: To many, these images are connected to deep, negative emotions.
While it is easing up somewhat, within China the use of Cultural Revolution imagery, especially images of Mao Zedong, is still largely off-limits for advertisers. For example, in 2009, a karaoke bar in Zhejiang Province was reprimanded for this Photoshopped ad of Mao singing:
In another merger of revolution propaganda and commerce, Harbin artist Wang Guangyi, who lived through in the Cultural Revolution and was "re-educated" in a rural camp, used the imagery with some well-known Western brands in his "Great Criticism" series.
Infamous American artist Shepard Fairey has produced his own version of Chinese propaganda art, updating (below, left) a well-known poster of the era that illustrated Mao's claim, "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun."
More than anything, the Fidelity International (a separate company from Fidelity US) campaign should be a reminder to Western brands that cultural striking points should be used with thought and sensitivity, not for wit.
While this fund is not targeted at mainland Chinese, it's been running in Singapore where it reaches ethnically-Han Chinese in Singapore. It's also worth noting that Raymond Ma, the manager for Fidelity's China Consumer Fund, is based in Hong Kong, which has been part of China since 1997.
Fidelity's Hong Kong website, however, isn't running the Cultural Revolution campaign to pitch the fund, but instead playing up China's "surging" consumerism with a giant pink shopping bag:
For more on the propaganda artwork of the Cultural Revolution, which started 45 years ago last week, try the Asia Society's resources on art and the Chinese revolution; and for pure visuals, check out the lush Taschen book, "Chinese Propoganda Poster."
Earlier: A look at Hitler in advertising.