As the news broke that parts of the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony had been faked, the friendly face of China was looking increasingly like a prefabricated PR mask. It was certainly unfortunate that little Lin Miaoke, who won so many hearts with her stirring rendition of “Ode to the Motherland” as the Chinese flag entered the stadium – turned out to be a fake. The real songbird, whose crooked smile fell short of the image of perfection that the Chinese had wished to present, had been locked away out of sight while the other girl performed an elaborate mime.
Then we learned that some of the fireworks were merely digital illusions. This particular scam had even extended to poring over weather forecasts so that expert illusionists could simulate a similar smoggy sky to the one everyone saw on the night. For good measure, they added camera shake to simulate filming fireworks live from a helicopter. All in all, it was a characteristic PR spectacular, similar to the ones that I uncovered while researching my book, The Fame Formula, which shines a light on the darker side of PR tactics. The Olympic rent-a-crowd of identically dressed extras who suddenly materialise to fill empty seats is the equivalent of the screaming girls who used to be planted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the 1940s by his publicist.
But there are darker forces at work in Beijing, which we have allowed to be swept aside since our general discomfort when shell-suited Chinese thugs jogged down the Mall in London to protect the Olympic flame from protestors. It’s also only a few months since Steven Spielberg distanced himself from the Games in protest at Chinese arm sales to Darfur; only a few months since the violence in Tibet sparked street protests in Paris and London. The Chinese, of course, were determined to make sure nothing went wrong. So they asked the PR industry for help.
According to a UPI report, a number of American PR agencies met with Chinese officials to talk about public relations strategies to be used before the games. Market analysis was also conducted on how China is perceived in the West. Soon afterwards, films by five international directors — Giuseppe Tornatore Majid Majidi, Patrice Leconte and British director Darryl Goodrich — started appearing everywhere on the net as part of a viral campaign to portray China in a glowingly positive light.
This is nothing new: the Olympic ideal has been hijacked before by states including the Soviet Union and Cuba. Totalitarian states, far more than their democratic counterparts, truly understand the power of the Olympics. And of course the apotheosis of Olympic manipulation came in 1936, when Nazi Germany used PR to extol the virtues of its regime and ideals. Hitler apparently became an avid supporter of the internationalist games after Joseph Goebbels, his Minister of Propaganda, convinced him of their value in pushing forward a benign image for the Nazi regime. The Nazis duly provided financial support for the event and threw the full weight of their spectacularly successful propaganda machine behind the opening ceremony and the Games themselves.
They began with a vast parade, the premiere of Richard Strauss’ Olympic hymn, and a Nazi innovation that has lasted to this day — the arrival of a lone runner with a torch who was the last in a long relay from the site of the original Olympics in Greece. German athletes then went on to win the most medals, the XIth Olympiad was deemed an astonishing success and the world’s newspapers, for the most part, suggested that the Games had put Germans “back in the fold of nations,” and even made them “more human again”. Vast sums of money had been piled into the German Olympics to launder the image of the Nazis; even bigger sums have gone this year into the glossing over of China’s image. Hungry to make inroads into China, Adidas, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s and many other major companies have all coughed up tens of millions of dollars to sponsor the 2008 Olympics. The Games, in effect, are a Trojan horse of commercial opportunity. You certainly won’t hear those companies calling them the Genocide Olympics, as they have been dubbed by groups protestiung about Chinese involvement in Darfur. If a multi-national had the temerity to criticise Beijing, it would immediately jeopardize its own future in the world’s most promising market.
Matt Whitticase, from the Free Tibet Campaign, has pointed out: “You cannot trumpet your corporate-responsibility credentials, while at the same time indulging China and refusing to criticize it.” But that’s exactly what the Olympics sponsors have been doing. McDonald’s has said that the Olympics “aren’t the right forum for discussing Darfur”; General Electric suggested that putting pressure on China won’t help Darfur and Coke said it wouldn’t interfere “in the internal policy decisions of sovereign nations such as China and Sudan”.
China has tried, and to a large extent succeeded, in defusing qualms about its human rights record. It is aided in this by the global PR business, which knows that there is no bigger cash cow than the Olympics. Through remorseless lobbying, diplomacy, media tricks and skilful use of its growing economic clout, China — and the influential PR people in its pay — has sidelined Western complaints about human rights. Now, like Nazi Germany, it is using sporting prowess, miming schoolgirls and fake fireworks to polish its global image while we sit back and enjoy the spectacle, sighing with pleasure when our athletes win medals.