Superbowl Special! My Nominee for Most Revolting Ad

During the 2010 midterm-election campaign, I said that the "Chinese Professor" ad was the bit of political persuasion/propaganda most likely to be remembered long after the campaign. Of course, that was before I knew about "I'm Not a Witch."

I considered the "Chinese professor" ad skillfully done. It was ominous but just short of race-baiting (since the "villains" were not Chinese but Americans collectively, and its triumphalism was incidental, as an ending touch, rather than central); and it was in the long-standing American tradition of using external threat as a vehicle for addressing internal concerns. If you'd like to see how the same approach looks when carried out by people who don't worry for a second about what lines they cross, consider one that lucky viewers in Michigan will see later today.

It's for this year's campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in Michigan, now held by Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat. Her Republican challenger, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, works a "clever" play on her name to show how she's actually advancing the interests of the wily Chinese.

Let's not even get into the logic of the ad -- eg, the fact that China's formula for creating jobs has involved more public spending and more public "guidance" of industry than America's. Let's skip to the bonus points for racial imagery in the ad, apart from the obvious.
1) The "Chinese" woman speaks in American-accented English, and I would bet she is actually an Asian-American. But the script has her make pidgin grammar errors, "Me likee!!"-style.

2) The ad's words are about trade, budgets, and jobs, but its images are about -- 'Nam!!  Of course some parts of southern China look the way this ad does, with rice paddies, palm trees, no big buildings, people wearing conical straw hats and bicycling along dike tops. But this is nothing like how the typical big-factory zone looks in China, or the huge cities that would exemplify Chinese wealth and the country's rise -- ie, the subjects of this ad. So why this rural setting? I think it's because it offers a kind of visual dog-whistle, for those Americans who, either through experience or through Apocalypse Now-style imagery, associate smiling-but-deceptive Asians in a rice-paddy setting with previous American sorrow.

This ad is embarrassing for America! Regardless of party, I hope it loses Hoekstra more votes than it wins him. For an earlier illustration of a comparable approach, see this one from Nevada Arizona. [Apologies to Arizonans.]  Update: Politico has more on the ad. (And thanks to YA for the tip.)

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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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