Behind the Scenes: Making the 'Chinese Professor' Ad

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To review: last month I marveled at the slickness of the "Chinese Professor" ad and said, as I still believe, that it's the commercial most likely to be remembered from the 2010 campaign. Much back- and-forth ensued, and is still ahead, on the general topic of matching people's nationality to their looks, during which I idly wondered how the Asian-American and visiting-Asian students who served as extras in the ad (which was produced in the greater DC area) felt about the Chinese-menace message it conveyed.

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Now we know! Here's more of the back story, via a source I trust, from someone involved in making the ad. For understandable reasons, this person does not want to be identified by name. Emphasis added.

>>First off, everyone involved was in it for the check. From the grips, to the director, to the extras, it was all about doing the job, not about "the message." The only time the crew wasn't acting like a bunch of guys around the water cooler was during the lunch break when someone from CAGW [Citizens Against Government Waste, the sponsor] was here to "see how things were going."

The extras were recruited from a Craiglist posting, mostly, and a few fliers around the campus for "young people age 19-27, able to appear Chinese." About 50 showed up and they were given some info as to what to wear, but otherwise, they were just extras in a commercial. One commented that she was Laotian, but even Chinese people didn't believe her. Another said he was half Chinese, half Vietnamese. All in all, they didn't give a crap about what the purpose of the commercial was, they were happy to be hanging out, getting paid, and getting fed.

Towards the end of the day, when "The Professor" was on set, and some discussion of what exactly was being said happened, one of the kids piped up with, "But that's stupid, because *we're* Americans now." After the extras were dismissed for the day, they started having a conversation about being Asian in America, and bringing their parents' standards to American business. Of course, that was as they were walking out the door, so I'm not sure where that discussion went....

It seems someone has identified our facility, and asked the Powers That Be at the college questions about the commercial, which has caused them to ask the Campus Director to freak out a bit about us "allowing" them to film this here. They cut us a $15K check for the privilege, just like any other client. But the school has a bug up its butt, so you didn't hear any of this from me...<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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