About that lousy Expo 2010 billboard in Times Square.

The other afternoon I tweeted an image of a billboard promoting Shanghai’s Expo 2010 in New York’s Times Square. I was surprised (in a not good way) when I came across the sign, and if I hadn’t been completely occupied with my reasons for being in New York, I would have written slightly more than these 100 or so characters: “Expo 2010 Shanghai billboard in Times Square, NYC. Meanwhile, 99% of NYC editors never heard of Expo 2010 Shanghai.”

Believe it or not (you people who emailed about the tweet), I was actually trying to say something with that tweet: of the six New York magazine editors with whom I met last week, only one had ever heard of the Expo. Some of the blame for that ignorance falls squarely on Americans being Americans – we simply don’t take much interest in international events like Expos, World Cups, and UN Security Council meetings; but some of it, I think, falls on whoever the Expo organizers hired to promote their multi-billion dollar urban coming out party to Americans. Put differently, if you’ve never heard of the Expo, does that dour Times Square billboard make you want to learn more? Or as one friend in the US media emailed: “It looks like a billboard for a tourism industry expo focused on travel in your Golden Years.” That is to say – Shanghai isn’t going to attract much US media to Expo 2010 if this is the approach they’re committed to taking.

But I think the best commentary on the billboard and – intentionally or not – the lackluster effort to promote the Expo to Americans belongs to my friend Elaine Chow (Shanghai’s best English language blogger, no argument), who wrote on Shanghaiist:

Holy Christmas, is THAT what’s promoting our six month world-class event in New York City’s Time Square? Considering how much ad space costs there, you’d think the Expo promotion team would have spent a little extra money to make their ad look a little less like someone had to do a rush job in photoshop. At least pay for a decent font or something.

So what’s to be done? The other day, Expo historian Urso Chappell, commenting on Expo billboards in San Francisco, tweeted this simple solution:

Urso is onto something here: most Americans have never heard of an Expo (the last one that we hosted went bankrupt). But we have heard of World’s Fairs, and though they sound archaic to our ears (two editors, when I mentioned that an Expo is a World’s Fair, exclaimed: “They still hold those things?”), they also sound kind of fun in a retro sort of way. So take Urso’s advice, Expo organizers, and re-brand it a World’s Fair for US audiences.

And since I’m in the advice-giving frame of mind (and still irritated that I couldn’t convince several editors that the Expo is worth covering), the Expo organizers really ought to fire the agency/”designers” who cooked up the Times Square billboard – the dullest billboard in all of Times Square – and immediately hire a young Shanghainese designer to do something bright, neon, and exciting – not unlike the signage that goes up on Shanghai streets every day. Americans like that kind of thing, and it’ll go a long way to ensuring that I’ll see more of my media friends in Shanghai this summer.

21 comments

  1. LOL “we simply don’t take much interest in international events like Expos, World Cups, and UN Security Council meetings”

  2. LOL, good post. That billboard was on the front page of Chinese papers earlier this week, I even wrote about it but I completely missed this angle. Perhaps too long time in China has got me used to this kind of design 🙂

    I think in Euro it is quite different though, most people know about the EXPO, and I know quite a few who are planning to come to China for this. I am going to pay attention to the design of EXPO adverts we get over there (I bet exactly the same one, don’t think they even cared to customize it for each country).

  3. I regularly read this blog – my only source of Expo news – and I still wouldn’t be able to explain to somebody what the Expo is if they asked me. I think the whole thing is stupid.

  4. Deep misunderstanding here. The Expo, like all large events in China, is aimed at showing the locals how great China is and what wonderful things the CCP does for the people.

    Same for the Olympics and all other events.

  5. the billbord is much more than stupid, and I don’t really get it why they squeezed so many Chinese characters in such a small space, and just looks like a tourism ad from China Eastern Airline…

    I was being teased by a group of African NGOs yesterday in a meeting that Chinese scrap dealers are buying e-waste everywhere in Africa to spoil their formal action. Definitely we are only good at buying and selling cheap deals, and that’s so true in this case…

  6. I hope it goes really well. However, nobody knows who hosted the last Expo. Nobody knows who’s hosting the next one. And if we didn’t live in China we wouldn’t know who was hosting this one either. My guess is most of the Expo foreigners will be people who decided to make a trip to China anyway and then found out about the Expo in the course of doing their research. In the meantime much money has been wasted on making streets pretty for laowai. As I think may have been said by you or a commenter in the past, Adam, that money could have insulated a lot of buildings and brought tangible comfort and financial benefit to the people living on those pretty streets.

  7. Well, isn’t it really up to the organizers to promote said event? It looks to me like it was a chinese-designed placement, typical of here, no? Also, ‘no one in the USA gets it’, like really people think the rest of the world gets it? I think historically only the host country is the one who ever gets excited. Go ask someone in, say, Lebanon where the worlds fair is, do you think you will get much different answer than the editors? Think before you submit, chads. Are the shanghai expats starting to feel slighted?

  8. still irritated that I couldn’t convince “several editors that the Expo is worth covering” As an european correspondent i try very hard to think up an angle to cover the event.So can u please explain whats the importance? Would save me from sleepless nights.

  9. Alright, totally off topic: when I first came across the URL for this page I thought the website was “shanghai is crap”. Sure, its a Freudian slip (which I do a lot), but just thought I’d let you know in case you actually DO like Shanghai.

    PS. Beijing is better.

  10. John – Thank you for the keen insight. As it happens, I’ve heard it before. In fact, one of the first posts ever made to this blog addressed it (read the post here). As I wrote then, I will write now: Shanghai is grand. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Sorry, but it is not Americans (or anyone’s) responsibility to know about a World Expo – it is the responsibility of the events promoters. An Expo is not an important world event – some Security Council meetings are.

    Are you sure this isn’t the State Departments fault?

  12. The Game Show Channel in the United States sometimes shows old episodes of What’s My Line. When they do, they show them in order.

    A year or so ago, they were showing episodes from 1958. I was amazed how often Expo ’58 was mentioned, including speculation about the United States Pavilion there. Later, they even had the architect of the US Pavilion on as a guest. They never had to explain what it was. It was assumed the audience knew.

    How is it that we knew more about world’s fairs abroad 52 years ago… when we supposedly are more globally connected now?

  13. Urso: The expo is an entertainment with no connection to world events. “Global connection” really has nothing to do with it.

  14. World’s Fair (Expo) is outdated and dumb. We now have the internet and if we want to learn something about the world, we can just go on line. No need to stand in line for 4 hours to get a taste of a dumpling.

    Someone earlier said it correctly. All of these events in China are just held to try and convince the Chinese people that the Chinese government is “great”. Its political masturbation.

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