Saturday, 26 February 2011

Faux pho

The Vietnamese Government has a Department of Propaganda and Training, and they are very good at their job. Anyone interested in propaganda, or, as we gutlessly call it, marketing, should spend a week  reading the Vietnamese press to learn a thing or two on how to sell the unsellable. It's one of my favourite procrastinatory pastimes.

A couple of years ago, the Communist Party Central Committee launched a campaign with the rousing slogan "Vietnamese people use Vietnamese goods", which, just like the "Buy Australian made" campaign, was no doubt motivated by protecting local jobs.

However, unlike in Australia, where "Australian-made" is a byword for quality assurance, the Vietnamese campaign faced a much harder sell.

How do you convince the nation to buy its homegrown formaldehyde-laced pho? Or cancerous soy sauce from the Mekong Delta? Or delicious vegetables fertilized with genuine Vietnamese human poo? Or locally-caught seafood that's so chock-full of antibiotics that other countries refuse to import it? Or traditional Vietnamese rice wine that erodes your stomach? Or fresh produce so laced with pesticides that the very same farmer who grows it won't eat it himself?

You find a common enemy: China.

And so it goes that the campaign slogan should actually be "Vietnamese people would rather use anything than Chinese goods". Less catchy, I admit.

Hardly a week goes by without the press uncovering another diabolical scam launched by our wily northern neighbours. Since we've been here, we've heard about the toxic Chinese fabric, the toxic Chinese jewelery, the toxic Chinese glassware, the Chinese fake rubber cuttlefish (chewy!), the fake Chinese MSG, the fake Chinese "Made in Vietnam" products, the fake Viagra sourced "from a Chinese man", the fake Chinese cosmetics, the melting Chinese hairdryer, the fake Chinese eggs, the fake spices (CHINESE five-spice, to be precise), the smelly Chinese chickens, and a near-constant stream of horror stories relating to deadly Chinese fruit and vegetables.

Sometimes, there is an exquisite twist, where consumers will turn away from Chinese products and buy only Vietnamese - as instructed - but then it will turn out that the Vietnamese products are actually fakes anyway. This happened with the VIETNAMESE five-spice.

But - Dick Smith take note - it is a phenomenally successful approach. My Vietnamese friends literally will not touch a piece of fruit that is larger than average size, for fear it's been pumped with Chinese hormones. In supermarkets, packaging is carefully scrutinized for Chinese characters, and market-sellers shout "It's Vietnamese!" as their winning sales pitch. Despite myself, I have been completely suckered into it too, rejecting large shiny apples in favour of shriveled, spotty specimens no doubt grown in genuine Vietnamese human poo and sprayed with Vietnam's own toxic soy sauce, which is probably an excellent pesticide. If I'm going to buy carcinogenic apples, then they'll be Vietnamese carcinogenic apples, damn it.

The most recent Chinese scam is probably my favourite, though. For several weeks there had been feverish reports of Chinese plastic rice entering Vietnam, with a newspaper then claiming it had obtained a sample of it for official analysis:

"After examining the rice, Mr. Dao Quang Hung, an official from Horticulture Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, commented, “This rice looks very strange. I have never seen it before... The grain length of the strange rice is about 10 mm, 3-4 mm longer than the normal rice, while in terms of width, the strange rice is much thinner. The best rice in Vietnam now is the 5 percent broken rice, while the strange rice has no broken grain,” he said.
And what did this strange, Chinese rice end up being? Basmati.


  1. Nice post - interesting idea that China is a manufactured common enemy although there are also people locked up in this country for speaking out against China.

    I read a blog post recently that called the VN government "masters of propaganda" as if putting up posters which, in essentially, say "Uncle Ho says be good" is particularly fiendish and subtle.

    There's a lot of things wrong with VN goods but Chinese goods can be pretty awful. Normally though when China goods are being run down it's in comparison with Korean of Japanese or even US made goods.

    Our own governments have slick marketing groups, focus groups, expensive private sector ad companies etc.

    You may well be right when you say "However, unlike in Australia, where "Australian-made" is a byword for quality assurance" or perhaps your country is a whole lot better at propaganda than you imagined ;o)

    Let's face it - every country tells their citizens that to buy local because local is the best. They can't all be telling the truth.

    The fact that VN propaganda is much easier to spot surely makes it much less effective, no? And it's a reflection of just how badly done it is.

  2. "Shonky" imported Chinese shiz is not something to joke about. My dog was almost killed by melamine tainted pet foods that I bought from Wal-Mart.

  3. Attach this post of responsible journalism with your application for VN citizenship (and 50 million dong). You'll be a shoe in (Vietnamese plastic slipper that is).

  4. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    Just to clarify, I'm not saying the Chinese goods aren't dodgy (except for the "strange" Basmati rice!), or that there is some kind of groundless media conspiracy against them.

    And Steve, having worked in marketing, industry lobbying, policy hackery and media monitoring for government, I'm not under any illusion that my own government operates any differently to, or has more lofty motives than the Vietnamese when it comes to pushing their agenda. I'm simply entertained by and impressed with their approach in this instance. And, whether or not it's done "badly", the message still gets through, like I said, even against my better judgment.

  5. Great post.
    Nha Trang


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