Clinton suits and Bush diapers

Sunday, February 8, 2004

SHANGHAI, China -- The suit maker seeking Bill Clinton's endorsement hoped to use the former U.S. leader's "worldwide charisma." The man behind Bush Diapers was playing with the president's Chinese name -- "bu shi," which also means "not wet."

The practice of Chinese companies trying to associate their products with American political celebrities is gaining momentum -- an indication of the prestige of foreign-sounding names in the communist country's increasingly internationalized economy.

The attempts also offer fresh perspective on China's cold-and-hot relationship with the United States, its most important trading partner and economic model but also a rival perceived as suspicious of China's rise to power and prominence.

"Internationalization is a strong impulse," said Victor Yuan, president of Horizon Market Research, which surveys consumer trends. "No matter what the commodity, giving it an American- or European-sounding brand name caters to urban consumption tastes and raises public recognition."

While America is still often portrayed as a bully and hypocrite, its ideas and products flood China's markets and claim a strong hold on the public consciousness. American athletes and entertainers are among the best-known celebrities here.

In Clinton's case, the ex-president was offered $2 million in November to endorse formal wear by Fapai Xifu, a small garment maker in the eastern city of Wenzhou. Company officials at the time cited Clinton's "worldwide charisma."

"Our suits match Clinton's character and personality," said Wang Zhen, an official at Fapai Xifu Co.

Did Clinton consider the offer? A spokesman said at the time he had no knowledge of it, and a company secretary reached Friday couldn't say. Odds are Clinton didn't approve ads for "Rejuveface," either; the ad uses doctored photos of him soberly holding the product -- a weird metallic beauty mask -- over the inexplicable signature "James E. Sparks."

'Bu shi'

The diapers named for President Bush are a bit stranger. A former ad executive and aspiring screenwriter identified by his surname, Guo, applied this week to register the Chinese rendering of Bush's name, represented by the characters "bu shi," (pronounced BOO'-sher).

Guo was quoted as saying he came up with the idea "out of the blue" because the name sounds just like the Chinese words for "not wet."

Authorities don't seem amused. Newspapers quoted State Trademark Bureau officials as saying they would probably reject the diaper application because of bans on words or images that can cause "harmful effects on society."

"It may bring about bad social impact if a leader's name is registered as a trademark," a Bureau official was quoted as saying in the Shanghai Daily newspaper.

In 2001, officials cited such rules in forcing a shop advertising "bin Laden Beef Noodles" to take down its sign. That year, Beijing shut down a restaurant named after former leader Deng Xiaoping.

The bureau also recently turned down a company's application to trademark a line of women's wear named "Luwensiji," the Chinese name for Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who had an Oval Office affair with Clinton.

The choice of American political figures mines a complex mix of consumer emotions including envy and resentment of China's own closed political system, which places leaders, and their private lives, beyond scrutiny.

A diaper bearing President Hu Jintao's name or a suit endorsed by capitalism-promoting former President Jiang Zemin would still be unthinkable here. Mao Zedong iconic status, however, allows the numerous Mao lighters and "Mao Family Restaurants" offering the spicy cuisine of his home province.

As with all marketing schemes, there are no guarantees that endorsement of American statesmen would achieve the desired effect with often-fickle Chinese consumers.

"Maybe somewhere else people might like it," said Jay Fang, a salesman at a Shanghai boutique that sells Tommy Hilfiger shirts and other clothing made in China for export to the United States. "But," he added, "Shanghai folks just aren't that easily impressed."

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