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Sign of Arrival, for Xinhua, Is 60 Feet Tall

Stuart Elliott
Wednesday, 27 Jul 2011 | 12:04 AM ET

One of the most prominent advertising spaces in Times Square is soon to be occupied by a Chinese brand.

Police activity in Times Square, New York City, NY.
Getty Images
Police activity in Times Square, New York City, NY.

Xinhua, the news agency operated by the Chinese government, is leasing a giant sign, known as a spectacular, on 2 Times Square, the building that is the northern anchor of the district. The new LED sign, 60 feet high by 40 feet wide, is being built for Xinhua (pronounced Shin-wa) and is scheduled to make its debut next Monday.

Xinhua, which has recently expanded its business presence in the United States, is taking over the space on 2 Times Square that had been occupied for the last decade by the HSBC bank . The HSBC lease expired and was not renewed. The sign for Xinhua, which means New China News Agency, will be underneath the sign for Prudential , an American company, and above signs for Samsung (South Korean), Coca-Cola (American) and Hyundai (South Korean).

Chinese brands have previously occupied signs in Times Square. For instance, in the mid-1990s the 999 Pharmaceutical Company leased a painted vinyl sign atop two buildings at the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 48th Street.

And in January, the Chinese government ran promotional commercials on six oversize screens in Times Square featuring celebrities like the retired basketball star Yao Ming and the pianist Lang Lang. The campaign, deemed the biggest such effort by Beijing, was timed to coincide with the visit to the United States by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.

Also, Haier , a Chinese company that makes appliances, has its name on a building at 1356 Broadway, at 36th Street.

Still, the arrival of Xinhua on 2 Times Square is significant because of the building’s premier location in the so-called crossroads of the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese and South Korean marketers like Fuji, GoldStar, JVC, Sony and Samsung began leasing signs on Midtown Manhattan buildings like 2 Times Square and its sibling, 1 Times Square. It was considered a signal of their arrival in the global consumer marketplace.

“A lot of Chinese companies are coming, or getting ready to come, into this country with their own brands,” said Jeffrey Katz, the chief executive and principal owner of Sherwood Equities, a commercial real estate firm with properties that include 2 Times Square and 1 Times Square and that also owns the subsidiary Sherwood Outdoor, which oversees the spectaculars on both of those buildings.

In May, Xinhua moved its North American headquarters from Woodside in Queens to a tower in Times Square, 1540 Broadway, at 45th Street. And last year, Xinhua introduced a 24-hour English-language broadcast service, China Network Corporation, or CNC World, that seeks to reach 50 million viewers around the world.

Xinhua also recently began aggressively marketing its news wire service, particularly in the developing world, with a goal of competing with news agencies like The Associated Press, Bloomberg News and Reuters . (The Reuters building at 3 Times Square, on Seventh Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets, is decorated with huge video ad screens.)

Like the Japanese and South Korean brands that came to Times Square to better familiarize the United States with their products, the arrival of Xinhua is a prominent expression of its ambitions with Americans, many of whom are either unfamiliar with the state-owned news agency or associate it with relics like Tass, the official disseminator of government news releases in the Soviet Union.

Executives of Xinhua did not respond to questions sent last week by e-mail asking about their decision to lease the sign at 2 Times Square.

According to Brian Turner, president of Sherwood Outdoor, Xinhua signed a long-term lease for the space, which he described as “in excess of six years.” He and Mr. Katz said they hoped the lease would be a harbinger of other Chinese brands coming to Times Square.

Mr. Katz dismissed a suggestion that the presence of a Chinese brand in such a marquee location might discomfort some Americans.

“They’re leasing it,” Mr. Katz said of the sign. “They’re not buying it.”

“That’s good for the home team,” he added.

Mr. Turner echoed Mr. Katz, noting the continuing presence on 2 Times Square of Coca-Cola and Prudential.

“There’s nothing more American” than those brands, Mr. Turner said.

The last change of signs on 2 Times Square occurred in 2009, when Hyundai replaced Pontiac, a brand that was discontinued by General Motors .

Mr. Turner and Mr. Katz declined to discuss the financial terms of the lease for the Xinhua sign. However, signs in top-drawer locations in Times Square can rent for as much as $300,000 to $400,000 a month.

The expansion efforts by Xinhua are driven partly by a desire to counter what officials in the ruling Chinese Communist Party say is widespread bias against China in Western media reporting. The idea, Chinese leaders said, is to burnish the country’s image and give China a voice to match its newfound economic might.

Many media analysts, however, are skeptical that Xinhua will make much headway anytime soon in markets like North America and Europe, where residents are sophisticated and often look askance at information delivered by news agencies owned by governments — any governments.

Also, reports by Xinhua on topics like Taiwan and Tibet, which are of considerable political concern to its government bosses, are not necessarily known for being objective.

Andrew Jacobs and David Barboza contributed reporting.

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