They don’t want me to tell you this, but some time ago the US military hired a team of 90s generation Chinese students from Tsinghua University to produce a batch of recruitment commercials for the US Marine Corps. So far, the commercials have been a tremendous success, and the Corps’ 2009 recruitment numbers are off the charts. It is no exaggeration to say that the relationship between Chinese teens and American military men is at an all time high.
I know all of this because I’m the world’s premiere expert on the Chinese-Teen-US-Military-Marketing-Complex (CUMMCom). The existence of the complex is, admittedly, still only a theory, but in 1960 Eisenhower clearly warned the American people about it’s existence, saying “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” If you’re having trouble seeing it, let me help you.
It should be obvious to some of you (right???!?!), but, I’m probably moving too fast for most of you, and I don’t want anyone’s head to prematurely explode. So, let’s take a few steps back.
And now, being far enough removed from the fray, lets get serious.
CUMMCom is, of course, something I made up, but even though it’s an idea that has one foot squarely in Glenn Beck’s studio, the thought of Chinese student’s writing screenplays for the US Military’s commercials is not far fetched. Both Chinese students and the US Military have become exceedingly good at propaganda, and at times they seem to be using the same playbook. I’ll draw on a few of my real life experiences to support this assertion.
Between January 2009 and February 2010 I edited applications for Chinese high-school students aspiring to enroll into American universities. In total I edited somewhere around 300 essays. During the same period I watched an estimated 3500 hours of ESPN programming, which wouldn’t be terribly important if it wasn’t for the fact that this roughly translates into 350 hours of US Marine Core commercials.1
At 2am, on Friday, January 22nd, 2010, I unexpectedly found myself in a situation where I was both editing essays and watching ESPN. I had just come back home from a sneak preview screening of The Tooth Fairy, opened my email, and turned on SportsCenter.2 My head was still reeling from Dwayne Johnson’s clutch performance, and I was unconsciously humming the Star Wars inspired theme song from the new, two-and-a-half-minute National Guard ‘movie preview’ advertisement (see below). On my laptop, an email from my boss at the College Prep company was marked ‘urgent’. A Chinese student, someone called Bao Dixin, had sent along an essay packet that needed to be finished by the morning. I had no choice but to edit it now, because if I was late with this essay the boss would give future work to someone else, resulting in less money for me.
Bao Dixin’s packet included a personal statement and a few short answer responses. I decide to start with the short response he wrote for an Ohio State University prompt, “What is the best advice you have ever received? Describe how it has helped you and how you have used it.” His actual essay, with some parts removed removed for brevity:
I have watched ”Forrest Gump” dozens of times, but I never get tired of it. Perhaps, however, it will still come as a bit of a surprise that Gump is the person I admire most….
…In my sophomore year I came up with the idea of establishing a student association that would think of ways to individualize uniforms for each grade…
…After developing this idea, I came to the teacher in charge for student activity support. However, after listening to my thoughts, he told me, in an assertive tone, that the association would definitely go against the dress code of our school…Although I had expected that it would not be an easy task, the teacher’s pointblank refusal still caught me off guard.
The knock caused me to be in a very downcast mood the whole day. I did not want to see my plan stifled before it could even walk, but the barrier in front of me seemed invincible. Just as I was deciding to discard the plan, Forrest’s voice sounded in my head,: “Bao Dixin, you cannot quit. Nobody can easily succeed.” I accepted Forrest Gump’s advice….
…My continuous efforts paid off. At last, the teacher was persuaded to grant me permission to found the Association of Clothing Pattern Design.
Though there are variations on structure and topic, ninety percent of Chinese students’ essays are carefully crafted hagiographies.3 To answer the OSU prompt, Dixin chose to go with the “Inspirational Voice in the Head Told Me to Keep Persevering During a Tough Moment” structure: designed to turn a trivial event from Dixin’s past into something worthy of a Nobel. I designed a “How To” chart for your reference.
I’m positive that the practiced jiade of Chinese student writers like Dixin is due to an educational system in which students are taught that writing is considered good only if it can compete in the local Ministry of Propaganda sponsored essay contest. A student writer’s is dependent on sticking to a predetermined formula. In that way, the student’s writing is an approximation of how Chinese leadership chooses to market itself by writing about the way that things are supposed to be, or could be, as opposed to how they really are.
So, I’m surprised anytime I hear that a student whose essays I edited has been accepted into a top American university, because every college counselor I know says that creativity on the application essay is a must if one wants to get into a competitive college. Which is it then? Am I a very good editor, or are admissions committees in the US unaware that the essays of these students are basically assembly line forgeries?
Well, that January night I came to believe that it was the latter – we Americans are just really bad at recognizing propaganda, and admission committee members aren’t exempt – when, in the course of editing Dixin’s masterwork of self-aggrandizing fiction, the US Marine Corps commercial, “Leap”, came on. Play it, and listen closely to the words.
If you were able to recognize the eerie similarity between the commercial and Dixin’s essay, then kudos, you’re on to something. In fact, the storyboard for “Leap” uses the exact same essay structure as Dixin’s essay, albeit presented in audiovisual format. Let’s look at the transcript:
Narrator: I faced one of the toughest challenges of my life. I couldn’t swim. But, I can still hear my drill instructor today.
Voice in head (Drill Instructor Yelling): Don’t quit. If you quit now, you’ll always quit in life.
Narrator: So I jumped in. Unsure. Apprehensive. And scared out of my mind. But I came up a marine.
Heavy Rock Music, accompanied by images of the Marine looking bad ass with all of his adoring Marine brothers.
Movie Trailer Voice: The Few The Proud The Marines
Everything is there. The trivial problem (learning to swim with the aid of military instructors is a rather pithy problem), the voice (in this case a military Sargent), the ability to overcome by doing something trivial (jumping off a diving board with medics present), and praise from a group of peers (visual component: narrating soldier is pulled into the boat by his peers). In addition, everything is made to look and sound pretty Hot Tub Time Machine exciting — like in the very best essays, all the dressing and detail is there.
If you’re curious, go check out other US Military commercials on YouTube and listen to how they’re structured. Most of the ones I listened to would fare well in the aforementioned Ministry of Propaganda contest.
Now, I’m not claiming that the US military using propaganda is a huge revelation, but I am a bit incredulous that record recruitment numbers are being pushed up by commercials whose story lines are no more complicated than the ones being mass produced by some of the world’s least creative students. So many writers spend their time proselytizing about how uncreative and ignorant Chinese students are, but if the essays those uncreative Chinese student write have the power to send Americans into war zones, then what do those writers have to say about adult Americans?
- The Marine Corps knows that men without jobs, or who work from home like me, spend most of their free time fantasizing about Hannah Storm in Helen Mirren’s bikini, and the remainder of it begrudging an old coach or teammate who ruined an opportunity to play professional sports. A military career promises to provide a slightly less glamorous, slightly more off-label, TJ-Max version of bikini clad Hannah Storm, and is the closest thing to a professional sport that an out-of-shape man in his mid-20s to mid-30s can aspire to. [↩]
- When I wasn’t working or watching ESPN, I went to movies, so I was always up to date on the latest two minute US National Guard propaganda ‘movie preview’, which now, thanks to this massive budget, is guaranteed to be part of any movie experience not involving Jennifer Lopez or Matthew McConaughey (proving once and for all that there is a ‘too gay for navy blue and marine gray’ cut off in the American military). [↩]
- One of my editor colleagues, Nick, accurately characterized the Chinese student essay in a slightly more drunk way, after coming home from Sanlitun at 3am, only to find a packet he had to have edited by 8am that morning. [sic]: “I am the greatest student ever because I sit in the front row and actually answer questions and do my homework. one time i had the glimmer of an independent abstract thought, but unfortunately it was stupid and crazy. another time i even read a mediocre book by an american CEO, which i have no comment on but i figured you’d be impressed. so, you can see, i’m pretty much awesome. the most exciting thing i’ve done in my life was to be a summer camp counselor. or maybe it was going ice scating. it really touched my heart when the sad kid was slightly happier at the end than she was at the beginning. i plan to go to america, where everything is way better, then return home for some unexplained reason and be a global leader in crosscultural accounting, whatever that is. i’m going to be the leader of something, that much I’m sure of.” [↩]