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There weren’t many pavilions with more drama surrounding them than the USA pavilion at the World Expo. There were grave doubts for a long time about whether the United States would even be present at the Expo. It took a warning from the Chinese government that there would be serious repercussions in our relations for a last ditch effort spearheaded by Secretary Clinton to finally get us a building at the Expo.

Now what are the results? Organizers promised a Hollywood style movie going experience that would show off the essence of America. Each visitor is treated to a series of three different movies as they work their way through the pavilion. The first is a humorous few minutes showing Americans trying to say “ni hao” with very limited success. The next film is a pseudo-documentary of American values with interviews of children, prominent business executives, and Secretary Clinton and President Obama. The final film is a wordless short story with the basic theme being cooperation for a better world.

The three films were all well and good at trying to show that Americans want to be partners with the Chinese in developing green energy and sustainable economies. What the organizers didn’t intend on doing was communicating a far clearer message about America: everything here is for sale.

The Pavilion sponsors are prominently featured throughout the pavilion. When you first enter, there is a massive wall with dozens of corporate logo’s thanking them for their generous donations. For comparison, many hoer countries had corporate sponsors and thanked them in a similar way, but that is where it stopped.

Not in the USA pavilion though. The magic of product placement suddenly found public relations reps from the top sponsors speaking in the documentary style movies about questionably related items. You saw a Chevron executive talking about how his company is leading the way in green energy (despite their somewhat conflicting interest in oil drilling). A female executive from PepsiCo talked about what it means to be a healthy American family, even as she sells sugary drinks to kids in public schools. I literally winced each time one of these people came on screen, knowing they had paid for the ability to say whatever their branding guidelines determined was appropriate.

Thinking the worst was over, I was relieved to be done with the best of American cinema [sic] and head into the hall that in most countries displays their latest technology, sustainable development projects, facets of their people and history, really anything. Instead I was confronted with what can only be described as Time Square hall. The walls were lined with bright advertising displays from the corporate sponsors of our pavilion. FedEx, American Airlines, GE, Pepsi, the list goes on and on. Several feelings flowed through my body in a crescendo of anger: shock, embarrassment, offense and resentment.

Is this the best America has to offer? Is this what we really want China’s experience with the USA to be? I was dumbfounded. It makes me mad even now just thinking about it. America has so much more to share than we showed off at this pavilion. Why not showcase the ingenuity and creativity of our startup culture? Show new companies changing the world through business means. Why not show some of our founding documents with their dramatic and powerful language of equality and prosperity for all? If you want to stick with the Hollywood theme of the pavilion, why not have a display with the highlights of the best of American cinema and music? Really anything would have been better than selling the floor space to these corporate “donors”.

To be fair to the organizers here, I believe they probably did the best they could with the time given them. It’s shameful enough they were put in this position and is a tribute to the ambivalent attitudes of those approached years ago to begin planning for this event. In addition it’s clear any pavilion America constructed here does our country far greater good than not having any representation. Such a slap in the face would have seriously damaged Sino-US relations.

My greatest concern with the pavilion is that it portrays the US not as one nation but instead as a collection of corporations and individuals. Now we are definitely a melting pot of different ethnicities and backgrounds, but that wasn’t the message communicated. Instead we sold floor space piecemeal to the highest bidder and gave them their own mini exhibit at the Expo. If corporations wanted to exhibit here there is an entire bank of the river dedicated to them, they only had to build their own pavilion.  Instead they were presented as an integral part of our culture, which they indeed are, but not nearly so much as this exhibit leads visitors to believe. The bottom line is that I left the USA pavilion with the impression that money gets you anywhere in America, overpowering the genuinely collaborative and worthy message the films inside portrayed.

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1 Response » to “USA World Expo Pavilion Reveals More Than Organizers Intended”

  1. Bob Jacobson says:

    Dear Scott and Vanessa, thank you for an honest assessment of that part of the US Pavilion that is most rankling. The Pavilion’s organizers like to focus on the films as they’re innocuous (though at $23 million, maybe not innocuous enough). They seldom point out that the largest portion of the Pavilion is devoted to aggrandizement of American and Chinese multinationals.

    If we want to prevent this from becoming a regular experience at Expos, we have to discover how this occurred. No, it wasn’t a matter of time, not in the way you present it. The Bush Administration made a deliberate decision years before Expo preparations began to forgo public funding of any type, the better to engage in horse-trading with potential sponsors. The Bush Administration was unable to execute well, however, and the team it selected to create the Pavilion were amateurs and bumblers. It required the professional pitching of Hillary Clinton and her network of high rollers to “save” the day. In a way, it was inevitable how it turned out.

    I’ve written this up in an article on the Huffington Post, “Stalking Horse for Privatization? The US Pavilion Meets the IRS.” Why the IRS? Because it alone can find out all that transpired to produce the wrong messaging that so upset you. On another blog, an apologist for the programming said, “Hey, they’re Chinese and don’t really know one corporation from another.” Aside from its condescension, his comment betrayed what’s really been lost: the chance to use the US Pavilion, speaking to the Chinese, as a mirror in which to better see ourselves.

    Oh well, there’s always Yeosu, Korea, in 2012 and Milan, Italy, in 2015. Let’s hope for better.

    “A Stalking Horse for Privatization? The US Pavilion Meets the IRS,” May 20, 2010

    PS As if on call, the New York Stock Exchange, a US Pavilion “marketing partner” (i.e., sponsor), today issued this fascinating release announcing the first opening a trading day from outside of NYC — and it happened in Shanghai, right in the US Pavilion.  This validates my claim that the US Pavilion has one purpose: to promote American multinationals, not the American nation, not the American people — and not the American dreams you described so well.

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