Culture of Loss: An American Adman in China

John Benet reflects on an uncertain future for the nation, and himself

After 23 years in the ad business, mostly working as a freelance producer, John Benet, the star of Sunshine, a short documentary by his friend, director Doug Nichol, doesn't have the sunniest disposition. In Shanghai to make commercials for McDonald's, Benet veers between snarky cynicism and melancholia, and his world-weary musings provide a poignant counterpoint to the depiction of China's young but rapidly growing commercial culture. "Sunshine" is also a Chinese ad-industry phrase that refers to the happy, attractive qualities of the folks sought to star in commercials (and which, we learn, can be viewed as an extension of propaganda terminology and imagery from the Mao days, with the chairman shining down like a "Red Sun" on his people, represented by sunflowers). Benet is obviously not so pleased with the life choices he's made—and the inference is that the post-Revolution Chinese might have a similar path ahead, leading to disillusionment and doubts about their self-worth. Even so, I see reasons for both parties to be hopeful. Benet says the Chinese have "traded Mao for Ronald McDonald," which all but the most perverse would agree is an upgrade. Their adaptation of Western media tropes and sales approaches is far from complete, and there's ample time for them to make adjustments and improvements. As for Benet, he's well aware of his failings and of the "hustler" he's become to succeed as an adman. This acute self-perception and his deep dissatisfaction with himself imbue the guy with no small measure of dignity. Near the close of the film, he notes that while he's racing around the globe making commercials, he feels a duality of purpose: "I'm also doing something else, and sometimes I'm not aware of what that is." It's pretty clear he's searching for greater meaning in his life and work. Here's hoping that he finds it. Via AgencySpy.

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