Many of the pavilions at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai are phenomenal, both inside and out. The USA pavilion, however, is neither. But far worse than being visually unimpressive (which it is), the essence of our representation at the largest World's Fair carries an even sadder message.
I've been inside some pretty mind-blowing pavilions this week, which makes the failings of the USA's--the world's largest economy--even more shameful.
The pavilion consists of three eight-minute films shown in three different chambers, dubbed "Overture," "Act One" and "Act Two." The first, which visitors watch on a few smallish elevated screens while seated on the floor or standing, mostly consists of non-actors on city streets being coached through basic greetings and welcoming messages in Mandarin while they are filmed. Americans off the street are not the best Mandarin speakers, and this is played up in the film endearingly. Many Chinese folks get a kick out of westerners trying their broken Chinese, so the film's numerous stumbles are received with some laughs from the audience. OK so far. Celebrity appearances are included amongst the Joe Blows, including Kobe Bryant, Tony Hawk, Magic Johnson and, who's that there? Spokespeople from KFC (the Colonel?!) and Dow Chemical? Hmm.
As subtle as these first corporate inclusions are, things get much worse as we're ushered into a second, larger room for "Act One." Hillary Clinton welcomes us to the USA pavilion, and Barack Obama also delivers a by-the-book message of general international goodwill. Then we are treated to a number of talking heads delivering the saprogenic Expo themes of a global community working together, the magical potential of children, harmony with the environment, and so on. Only here, the talking heads aren't celebrities or other prominent Americans--no, save for a few academics from the University of Washington, every sound byte is delivered by corporate PR reps, many in logo'd polos, all representing the pavilion's major sponsors.
A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson's, who refer to their company as the "Johnson & Johnson Family of Products" talks about--you guessed it--the importance of family. Chevron's flak advocates the potential of "human energy"--apparently its next untapped resource to supplement the company's just-announced first-quarter 2010 profits of $4.55 billion thanks to surging oil prices and boosted production. General Electric's spokesperson advocates for wind energy--an honorable cause, sure, but coming directly from GE in this setting, a little awkward.
The third film is projected on several larger, unconventionally shaped screens in the final, even larger third room (Shh, don't tell anyone I took the photo above. I was literally begged to refrain from taking any photos inside by one of the pavilion's press agents, which is telling in many ways. The pavilion has no tickets to sell, and you would assume nothing to lose from images of its contents being released to the public).
Anyway, the third film portrays a young girl's quest to turn a run-down lot near her apartment building into a garden, and it's expectedly oversweet to the pooint of being cringe-worthy, but relatively harmless. Spray-misters in the ceiling kicking in during a rain storm in the film were a nice touch, especially on a hot day. And unless I missed any subliminal messaging, it is free of corporate messaging.
Whether or not the almost entirely sponsored nature of the USA pavilion is evident to most Chinese visitors, I do not know. I can't imagine it going completely unnoticed, even if the end feeling is one of simply being underwhelmed, especially after an hour plus in line waiting to get in.
But more importantly, is this really the message we want to be presenting at such an event?
In the presence of so many thoughtful, intelligent, beautiful and fun pavilions from other countries (with far smaller GDPs, I might add), ours is an embarrassment. Many other pavilions incorporate sponsors--I'm certainly not decrying their very existence, nor is any of this the fault of the sponsors themelves. There about a thousand more tasteful ways to include products or messages from corporations without jeopardizing the overall experience, and it is the pavilion's job to do that, which in the end benefits the advertiser as well.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at such a sponsorship hack job, though, when in a column on Foreign Policy's website defending the pavilion's somewhat nefarious conceptions story, its director Jose Villareal included this surreal paragraph:
"Chevron, Citigroup, Disney, General Electric, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson, all of whom have donated or provided in-kind assistance to the pavilion effort, see their involvement as linked to their own corporate social responsibility missions. Other major U.S. companies donating or providing in-kind assistance include: Amway, American Airlines, Boeing, Dell, Deloitte, Dow Chemical, DuPont, FedEx, Harman International, Honeywell, Intel, Marriott, Mars, Microsoft, Panasonic Integrated Systems, Qualcomm, Visa, Yum! Brands, and Wal-Mart."
Yikes. That's 26 corporate shout-outs. In the middle of a column defending his pavilion's integrity.
World's Fair pavilions are themselves largely advertisements for the countries and people that built them. The only content inside the USA Pavilion is more advertising, only for corporations, not culture. Is that really the message we want to be sending?
That the USA has a corporate culture? Go figure..... I thought for sure we would have some awesome stuff from NASA, being that the US has the most advanced space program in the world.
*Sigh* Suddenly the future depicted in the original Rollerball movie doesn't seem so far-fetched. Soon, before every sporting event, we will hear the words: "Please rise for the Corporate anthem."
Soon we may not even have that. This whole scheme looks like it had ZERO creativity at all...
Who ever thought up this mess needs to be fired; he/she isn't making us look too good here.
I think that if it was run by a Hollywood director (i.e. Speilburg or Cameron), had cool video shots from our own citizens, showed off actual prototypes of new stuff we make, and a few touches like that it might have at least been average.
And yeah, a little less "corporate culture" would have helped a little.
But hey, there's always next year...right?
Thanks to John Mahoney for a thorough review, but the US Pavilion is only a symptom of a larger problem: the outsourcing and privatizing of US public diplomacy, what I call the "Blackwatering" of US public diplomacy.
Unfortunately, there isn't "always next year," as 10jacobf suggests. This was THE big deal, the historic gathering -- for the first time, in peace -- of almost every nation of the world and every global organization that serves humanity. For us to blow this event for mostly personal gain and ego gratification is not just a national disgrace, it's the worst sort of public diplomacy at the worst possible event.
The next big Expo, in Milan, is important and one hopes the US effort there will be better -- but Milan is hardly Shanghai.
There were better pavilions proposed for Shanghai in a formal RFP, one by seasoned Expo veterans, that would have wowed the crowd -- as the Chinese hoped. But for political reasons, the State Department decided to privately outsource the project to the current producers who had neither experience in pavilion production and operations nor very good relationships with the Shanghai American-expat community.
Only the Consulate got them through it -- allegedly, according to press interviews with the producers, with Chinese design, labor, and money, a major faux pas in terms of future US-China relations. This after the producers initially resigned, in October 2008, when there was still time to choose a more able team.
For continuing coverage on this and related topics, I've found The Atlantic correspondent Adam Minter's coverage the most complete, although NPR, The Independent (UK), and occasionally Fast Company and John Brown's Public Diplomacy blog provide good coverage. Minter's blog, Shanghai Scrap, can be found at (I have to break up the URL)
http : // shanghaiscrap DOT com /? cat=38
You can also read my story in the Huffington Post, May 3, "'Blackwatering' Public Diplomacy: The US Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo,"
http : // bit.ly / huffpo-uspavilion
Thanks again for a candid review. I add the observation that many of the US Pavilion's corporate sponsors are now involved in such anti-"Better City, Better Life," anti-sustainability initiatives as working to eliminate international labeling requirements for genetically modified food, oil drilling in deep seas, deforestation of rain forests, manufacturing using toxic materials (that ironically end up ironically in Chinese waste dumps), "big box" urban development that destroys small towns, and similar activities.
One company that sells fast-food stands to earn profits of tens of millions of dollars during the Expo serving obesity-promoting items to thousands of US Pavilion visitors over the next six months. Such a deal.
And it's all tax exempt, which means you and I are making up the difference in our taxes. For some, there is a free lunch -- bought by us.
THIS PISSES ME OFF !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
im american, im from MA and this freaking rediculous!!!!
wtf cant they show nasa and other scientific breakthroughs
this is a disgrace to our country and anyone who took part in its design SHOULD BE DEPORTED TO SOME OTHER FREAKING COUNTRY!!!!!!!!!
meant """"this is freaking rediculous """" not "this freaking rediculous" lmao
Too bad we can't just set up a Fight Club esc scenario and bring down corporate america or anything.
Well, that's how I feel being an American my whole life. Corporations. Boring, ruthless corporations that just want your money and will step on your child's soul to get it.
I bet most of the USA exhibit has "Made in China" labeled on it too.
This doesn't surprise me, what the article left out is that the US policy forbids the government from funding these events so we know where the private funding is coming from, they really should look at that policy after seeing all the wonderful displays by others and realize how bad it looks for the country, but some how I doubt that will happen.
Reminds me of those propaganda posters that the Soviets had during the Cold War but a little too true this time.
Well... I would propose that Apple with their abundant flair for great design, and as true visionaries, should be building and maintaining the next USA, World Expo pavilion. They would represent USA in the greatest way!!!
I see this as a near-perfect representation of what the U.S. of A. stands for: CAPITALISM. Is it such a surprise that your pavilion would look like this, in a country where socialism is considered something to be afraid of?
PS: I'm from the great white north (Canada), and though we're a bit less enslaved to the corporate overlords at the moment, we're certainly heading in the same direction. :(
What is the alternative? If you actually believe that our government is capable of making anything inspirational and on schedule, then I invite you to look at the hole in the ground where our twin towers were in New York.
Our corporations built a USA Pavilion display with no government money and on schedule. If you want "Shock and Awe" then go shut your eyes tight, rub them hard until you see virtual colored sparks and think about "Hope and Change" national debt.
It seems to me that this pavilion reflects the current popular
trend of self-abasing, we-hate-ourselves, we're sorry we're so successful, please don't hate us, we're not so hot, USA. I grew up believing in this until I was set straight by a European who told me I have the best country on the planet.
@rgetty Wrong, US law does not forbid public funding of a US presence at an Expo. It merely specifies that the State Department should get a formal appropriation from the Congress that allocates funding for the US Pavilion. That's true of every federal agency.
This deceit was spread by the Rice State Department to cover for a policy decision to privatize the US Pavilion.
A Congressional source reminded me that it was Congress that went to China in 2005 and that leaned on the Bush Administration to participate in the Expo. It then waited for an appropriation request that never came. It never came because State was committed under both the Bush and Obama Administration to outsourcing the US Pavilion. And that's what got us where we are today.
See my comment in response to this link.
This is the American dream - a second hand car dealership.
1) For once the US govt did not spend our money - and people are upset?
2) The US was polite enough to not "out Herod, Herod" in China, where that politness matters and where our spending more would merely obligate them to spend more and more.
3) We didn't waste money borrowed from China to build things in China for the purpose of sucking up to China. This is bad?
4) In a time of global economic crisis, we didn't spend money in the one country that is reaping from the world's woes - making our landlord only slightly more rich, rather that slightly more richer.
I am embarrased. Seriously dude. I don't know how popular this world expo is though. I mean, a world expo SHOULD be pretty popular (by popular I mean basically how many people attend) but I find it amazing that if that is the case we'd put on a shitbag of an expo that you showed above. Is that really what we want people to think of our country? If you knew nothing about the world and went to the world expo to learn about different countries you wouldn't even likely visit the USA pavilion much less take away that they're the largest super power in the world. I really wish our country would get their act together but things only seem to be getting worse. We're a culture dominated by greed and selfishness. Not everyone is that way, but a majority are, and that is definitely how we're viewed throughout the world. not sure how to change that. they say a few bad apples spoil the bunch, and we've got WAY more than a few.
I think it would be a lot more fun of countries could build pavilions saying what each country thinks about the host country. Meaning, each country would conduct a pole to find out what citizens of your country think about the host country and then build a pavilion using that.
The host country would then get a really good idea of the perceptions people in other countries have about them.
For instance. A lot of people in America think that there is a LOT of prison slave labor in China and that they make low quality products for very low to no pay.
Of course we Americans are at fault for demanding the absolute lowest price for everything so of course we end up having all our products being built there since they will build "everything" for lower prices than anywhere else.
I've been to China and I can tell you that what we as tourists get to see the prison labor. They want you to only see the good parts of China.
Hey John, maybe you can still get into North Korea or Iran....since you're such a fan. Are you seeing a theme here yet? Everywhere but the home that gave you everything is better than here. You're annoyed we arent spending more of our money to show Chinese people who well our science programs are doing? Is that really the goal of our science programs....to impress foriegners?
Thanks for the correction, I knew I wasn't 100 percent correct but was in the ball park for why the funds were so little, maybe not even in the ball park. Thanks
Even a purely capitalistic society wouldn't privatize something that represents the public. Our government has it's head up it's ass right now, big time, and any attempt to exercise Democracy ends up in picking a lesser of 2 evils. The world is preparing to rampage on us; we need to rampage on our government. Then, we need to set up an internet-oriented pure Democracy, where we elect ideas instead of corruptible, conniving, politicians.
A question. Is this pavilion approved by our government, congress and president?
You ever consider that with out bounding deficit they may have decided it was an unneeded expense? Just a reminder last I checked we owe something like 40-50k dollars per person in the USA, no I don't just mean the working taxpayer I mean that includes everyone working or not.
So do we really need to make a display to show what is already known?
To put this in a little perspective, the Expo is not doing all that well. The report that I read said that attendance was not what they had hoped.
There was also criticism of other pavilions e.g.
- The Chinese pavilion was good, but tickets to see it were nearly impossible to obtain
- The Seed Cathedral (much praised at popsci) is viewed by many as 'empty inside' -- as such, not worth entering.
There were more, but those stood out.
Bottom line is that it's probably not that big a deal. Media coverage seems awfully sparse. Even popsci didn't do any buildup as far as I can tell.
The seeker of knowledge who seeks to reach beyond the stars to go where no mans gone before to see things no man has seen and bring these experiences back for the whole world to hear and see.
Well the truth is it's becouse of congress and the lack of creativity of the designers payed to create the theme .but mainly the congress they secretly went behind the american peoples backs and passed a law to allow them to control our state money involvement in the expo it's another example of how un for the people our country's become the only reason we had an expo was couse the contributers and if their money wenrt the largest contributers this wouldnt have happened thank our goverment who care about keeping their same pay and job while every one else suffers and thank whoever went around the american peoples back and did this nobody voted for the or at least the people didnt
World's largest economy? What part of a Trillion doller dept does this guy not get? We probably got what we got with loaned money.
Of course all the others are beautifal and spectacular, whoever built them is probably getting a slice of our trillion doller pie. Everyone thank Obama/Bush for makeing the World Fair so beautiful! Well, except for our part of town.
Funny of Globalization works huh? -No wait...it doesn't.
"Peace, commerce, and honest friendship will all nations--entangling alliances with none.“ -Thomas Jefferson
(that goes for NATO and INTERPOL)
I agree, we should fire the litle bastered. But hey, you elected him. :(
If the articles is accurate on how the Pavilion is....it Fu*#$& Sucks!
A true embarrassment to US creativity (http://www.tiket.cl)