Japan: Another World

Japanese advertising has a reputation for being incomprehensible to outsiders and not just because it's all in Japanese. Dentsu's Akira Kagami endeavours to explain.

Japanese advertising is different. Entirely different. For many of you who have never lived in Japan, it can be totally incomprehensible. This has been a recognised fact for a number of years now, and we are often asked why this is so.

If Darwin had asked the giant lizards of the Galapagos Islands what made them so unique, their reply would most probably have been: "We are who we are!" This is how we feel when asked that question. It is not that we are being intentionally difficult. We simply are as we are.

In a bid to account for the singularity of Japanese advertising, a number of explanations have been offered. One is that Japan is a monolingual society, hence the country's cultural context is unified by language.

Communication is therefore seamless because this context is understood by all speakers of Japanese.

This a valid point. Yet, creatives rarely pay attention to such grand theories when making ads - much as people rarely think about grammar while conversing. Furthermore, things do not always simply boil down to "cause and effect", but, as we know, human nature tries to find reasons for all kinds of phenomena. My challenge here is to try to shed some light on why creative in Japan remains such a mystery to so many.

As I recall, it was around the end of the 80s when Westerners starting remarking that advertising in Japan went way over their heads. I suspect this remark may have been prompted by frustration; Japanese advertising, something that these Westerners had previously had no difficulty getting to grips with, seemed suddenly to have moved beyond their understanding.

I also remember that, at the time, those same Westerners were citing differences in cultural background as a major factor impeding their understanding of Japanese ads. This opinion remains to this day.

At the time, Japanese culture was undergoing dramatic change, and what had been traditionally revered was now being pushed aside, and novelty took its place. This period coincided with the rapid rise of the purchasing power of the younger generations. And with comic strips and animation having an ever-growing effect on consumer sentiments, the logic of need was replaced by the feeling of want. All these factors were reflected in the market.

Given these changes, it was only natural that advertising adapted to the changing market and audiences.

This market-driven effect is alive and well to this day, growing more refined as it develops. For advertising is a prime example of cultural evolution in action.

Since this is also a global phenomenon, the question of what sets Japanese advertising apart from that in other markets nevertheless still remains.

One answer is television.

Television in Japan rules the country's mass media, no question. It is the king of popular culture. The only way to truly understand its power would be to come to Japan and see for yourself. TV commercials not only sell products, but also generate hit tunes and launch new celebrities.

The impact of TV commercials is so powerful that we have specialists dedicated to just creating TV commercials, a phenomenon unique to Japanese advertising agencies.

Interestingly, it was other Asian countries that first recognised the implications of Japanese creative. As Asian markets grew and culture changed, the need to tailor ads to suit individual markets gained increasing recognition. This subsequently led them to acknowledge the uniquely effective quality of Japanese creative work. Asian countries' geographical and cultural proximity to Japan certainly helped facilitate their understanding of Japanese advertising. Nevertheless, the fact Japanese advertising has inspired creatives in other parts of Asia (much as the giant lizards in the Galapagos inspired Darwin) is evidence that we must be doing something right.

- Akira Kagami is the executive creative director of Dentsu

KAGAMI'S PICK OF JAPANESE ADVERTISING

Advertiser: Amino-Shiki/Suntory

Agency: Dentsu

Complete with catchy jingle, this ad stood out in the hugely popular healthy drinks category with its tongue-in-cheek claims of what you can do after a glug of Amino-Shiki.

Advertiser: Aiful Corporation

Agency: Beacon Communications

The finance company Aiful Corporation struck a chord with the Japanese public because of its cute way of saying people are not always as they seem. A Chihuahua puppy gazes into the eyes of a proper, middle-aged man, who, to our surprise, falls in love and takes the puppy home. The ad sparked a Chihuahua boom in Japan.

Advertiser: Kinchol/Dainihon Jochugiku

Agency: Dentsu

This ad for Kinchol mosquito repellent was loved because of its honesty, expressing what so many TV viewers feel about advertising. In the commercial, a son begins explaining Kinchol's product benefits to his father. His father interrupts to bark: "What you are telling me is just so dull!"

Advertiser: Nescafe/Nestle Japan Group

Agency: McCann-Erickson Japan

A poem, Morning Relay, by the contemporary poet Shuntaro Tanikawa is read while views of dawn breaking alternate in the background. A sublime way of saying that with a beautiful peaceful morning, a cup of Nescafe is a must.

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