Greg Baker  /  AP
A pamphlet with former President Clinton's image is used to promote Rejuveface, a woman's beauty mask. Originally a novelty, the practice of Chinese companies seeking to associate their products with American political celebrities has morphed into an incipient market trend.
updated 2/10/2004 2:40:24 PM ET 2004-02-10T19:40:24

The suit maker seeking Bill Clinton's endorsement hoped to harness the former president's "worldwide charisma." The man behind Bush Diapers was playing with the president's Chinese name — "bu shi," which also means "not wet." And then there's the "Lewinsky dress."

While not quite a market trend, 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 China'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, and ads for Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Buicks are legion.

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." Clinton is still widely admired here, as is former President Jimmy Carter, who opened diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979.

"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 weird metallic beauty mask uses doctored photos of him soberly holding the product — over the inexplicable signature "James E. Sparks."

The diapers named for President Bush are a bit stranger. A former ad executive and aspiring screenwriter identified by his surname, Guo, has applied to register the Chinese rendering of Bush's name, represented by the characters "bu shi" and 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 identified as Mr. Liu was quoted as saying in the Shanghai Daily newspaper.

In 2001, authorities 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 of 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 as well as 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. Not so Mao Zedong, whose iconic status 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."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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