Unlike many recent world's fairs, the Universal Exposition in Shanghai is getting significant press. Americans, for the most part, live with the illusion that expos are a thing of the past (Seattle is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its last, having just hosted the 100th of its first). In fact, they are booming around the world, even if the last in North America was in Vancouver in 1986.
I remember covering the big expo to commemorate Columbus' "discovery" of America in Seville in 1992: no one in America knew it was happening. The U.S. pavilion was utterly pathetic, featuring a recycled corporate film from General Motors in a geodesic dome that reeked of off-gassing plastic (that toxic "new car" smell) and a recreation of a street in Kansas City. If that was the sum of America's contributions to the world, Columbus might as well have stayed home.
Interest in Shanghai is primarily due to the clout of its host: China. Shanghai is putting on the largest expo in history, with nearly 200 countries participating (including, for the first time in history, North Korea). Seventy million visitors are hoped for (attendance so far is running below that target, but still strong with some 200,000 visitors per day). The site is more than two square miles in size.
Some of the publicity is due to, as I've covered here at Crosscut, the tribulations of U.S. participation in the fair. The U.S. almost was a no-show, the pavilion process bungled during the George W. Bush years.
The story-line runs that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on behalf of the Obama administration, stepped in and saved U.S. face by raising over $60 million in corporate sponsorships to put together a last-minute pavilion (with the assistance of former Washington governor Gary Locke, a Chinese American and secretary of Commerce, who helped break ground on the pavilion).
So, Clinton's stake in the fair is a big story, and her visit there recently was of great interest, getting worldwide coverage including in the New York Times and Washington Post. Clinton passed out teddy bears to kids and wore a sky blue suit that matched the colors of the Expo mascot, and she seemed pretty unconcerned about the quality of the USA Pavilion, simply relieved that it was there. " 'It's fine,' she said to a reporter asking her what she thought of the pavilion. 'Can you imagine if we had not been here?' "
That was the concern all the way along: the United States risked infuriating China if it did not participate in what has been described as a "coming out" party for the nation. Clinton's relief reminds me of an old Charles Addams cartoon in the New Yorker, where a nurse presents an ugly man with a bundled newborn: "Congratulations," she says, "it's a baby!" For better or worse, Hillary delivered.
The drama of the delivery, however, has drawn interest from the media who, for perhaps the first time in two decades, actually seem to be interested about what is in a U.S. pavilion. Forget the scandalous process, the insider politics, the restrictions to public funding. What kind of image are we portraying to the most important market in the world?
American salesmanship is often cringe-inducing and fraught with brand overkill, but it can also, occasionally, blow people away. Recent U.S. pavilions have tended to be plastered with sponsorship logos to the point where they resemble factory outlet malls. But there have been cases where the U.S. has mounted a strong exhibit that simply outclassed the competition. For example, showing off a moon rock at Expo 70 in Osaka. What other country could display an actual piece of the moon? The rock said everything there was to say about American technology and drive. Of course, the fact that we don't yet have a Mars rock and are deep in debt to China is a statement about our current status too.
Reporters covering Clinton's Shanghai visit seem to be surprised at the degree of commercialization of the USA Pavilion's content. Reports the Washington Post:
One film [in the USA Pavilion] on the creative power of children featured interviews with representatives from corporate powerhouses Chevron, General Electric, Pepsi and Johnson & Johnson with the non-governmental organization Habitat for Humanity and the University of Washington thrown in apparently for good measure. That film was aired in the Citicorp room. In the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer room, [Hillary] Clinton was treated to a film that was the centerpiece of the U.S. message: about a tween named Rain who wanted to build a garden on an urban plot. Through cajoling and hard work, she persuades young and old to help her.
"You've got a dream, so plant it in your heart," went the song. "You can make it bloom so all the world will see." As the movie ended, the screen said in Chinese: "This film was made by Pepsi."
Since the U.S. government no longer underwrites national pavilion propaganda, but has essentially outsourced it to the corporate community under the umbrella of a pavilion-organizing non-profit, this should be of little surprise. Sponsors are going to want their pound of flesh. The real question is, have pavilion organizers been able to finesse the commercial messaging, or have they been able to put on a show that makes everyone shrug their shoulders at tacky sponsorships?
An impressive 4-D film or IMAX extravaganza can dull the blows of overt pitches by being fun or inspiring. The USA Pavilion's films were created by BRC Imagination Arts, a veteran creative firm that produced the memorable Academy Award-nominated film, Rainbow War, for the Canadian Pacific Pavilion at Expo '86 in Vancouver, and the "Spirit Lodge" for the GM pavilion too. If you don't have moon rocks, can you make 'em squeal, or at least oooh and ahhh a little?
One interesting early review from Shanghai blogger Adam Minter, who has extensively covered the problems with the USA Pavilion, is his observation that the national pavilions are often much less interesting than the purely corporate ones. In other words, while a film by Pepsi might be rather tepid in the USA Pavilion, you might have a blast over at the Coca Cola pavilion. If you're going to get a sales job, why not cut out the middleman?
A corporate pavilion already getting good buzz: SAIC-GM's. General Motors is a USA sponsor, but in a stand-alone pavilion, they've partnered with the Shanghai Automative Industry Corp. to offer a sensational multimedia film on life in Shanghai in 2030. Minter says the corporate pavilions tend to ramp up the "gee whiz" factor. The effectiveness of such pavilions is something big corporations understand, which is why private sponsorships for national pavilions can be so hard to come by.
Another thing to keep in mind is that U.S. pavilions are not made to please U.S. audiences, or even global ones. Nearly 95 percent of Expo's Shanghai visitors will be Chinese, the other 5 percent or so from other countries. So one measure of success for USA Pavilion won't be what Americans, the media, or Expo professionals think of it, but what impact it makes on the Chinese people. A Reuters report notes that in the USA Pavilion:
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