USA Pavilion at World Expo Lets Down USA

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The World Expo is China is now half over. However, the reviews are already in on the United States’ presence at the event. In a word: Overbranded.

Secretary of State Clinton choked back her dislike for the USA pavilion, managing only a compliment of “It’s fine.” That was in May, just after the event opened.

Now, more and more reports are streaming in about America’s presence, and they are less than kind. The one thing they all have in common is a criticism of the USA, showing as overly corporate and too branded. At an expo meant to show the world a country’s best face, what does this say about the nation?[more]

The USA pavilion is a 6,000 square foot “grey steel structure” boasting the theme “Rise to the Challenge.” The challenge? Putting a corporate logo on every possible element. Even the pavilion’s “no smoking” signs carry a Pfizer sponsorship.

A CNN Money correspondent asked, “Aren’t we more than just a collection of giant corporate entities and politicians?”

Kenya Davis-Hayes, an American studies scholar at USC’s Annenberg School, blogged about her disappointment in a post titled “Welcome to the US Pavilion: We’re here to disappoint.”

Rather than present corporate America, Kenya observed, “With the Expo theme of ‘Better City, Better Life’ the US Pavilion had limitless opportunities to construct for its audience the American experience through the lens of its cities.”

American Public Media Marketplace’s correspondent also commented, “More than 50 American corporations donated $61 million to fund the U.S. Pavilion. A wall of their logos is the first thing you see when you enter, and a gallery of corporate exhibits guards the exit.”  Though the correspondent added that he coudn’t find a Chinese critic.

To be fair, the USA pavilion organizers were hamstrung. Due to some truly questionable legislating, the federal government was legally prohibited from funding the USA’s Expo pavilion. With a recession slamming private donations, the pavilion’s only hope was brand sponsorship.

The great irony of course is that the pavilion’s heavy brand representation is itself negatively branding the country it’s meant to represent. While the old maxim that America is an economy, not a nation, is often repeated, it might serve that economy’s brand better to at least appear to be a nation, economically speaking of course.

(Editor’s note: For more on this topic, check out the USC Center for Public Diplomacy’s Shanghai Expo website for videos, blog posts and differing points of view – such as this piece by the CPD’s Jay Wang – on how America’s nation branding efforts in Shanghai compare to other countries’ approaches. The CPD’s YouTube channel and Facebook page continue the conversation — check them out.)

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