CLOSE-UP: GLOBAL BRIEF; Into battle the Japanese way

Michael Fitzpatrick finds comparative advertising is frowned upon in Japan

Michael Fitzpatrick finds comparative advertising is frowned upon in


Comparative advertising, which proclaims a product’s differences by

slagging off its rivals, has come as a bit of a shock to Japanese


Pepsi was the first to cause trouble in 1991 by importing a US ad

featuring a can of Coca-Cola.

Although the film broke no laws, Coca-Cola Japan campaigned to have it

removed, or at the very least to have any mention of its name erased

from the screenings. Pepsi Japan conceded in the spirit of responsible

self-regulatory practice that is expected of every large industry in

Japan, including advertising.

The ban on comparative ads was lifted way back in 1987, but only 30 such

ads have been launched to date, according to Leo Iwasaki, director of

Dentsu’s overseas communications department in Tokyo. And most are coy

in their assaults - rival products are referred to in vague terms or a

shadowy likeness of the rival is used.

More recently, a bolder Mondeo ad created by Dentsu for Ford Japan

caused uproar when it actually criticised Volkswagen’s Golf model and

accused the German import of being overpriced. ‘Why are European mass-

market cars more expensive than compact cars in Japan?’ the newspaper

advertisement asked. It then went on to state that the price of a Golf

‘is a very strange phenomenon’. Many feared the start of an advertising

war and the sparking of an unseemly price battle between foreign motor

manufacturers in the week of the ad.

Ultimately, all that emerged from the initial debacle were a few gentle

shots across the bows from Volkswagen. Surprising, considering the

effrontery involved, by Japanese standards. But if you take into account

the close links between rival companies, forged through industrial

associations that border on a sort of old-boy chumminess, then perhaps

the reluctance to upset another company is more understandable.

Toshi Okuba of the Japanese agency, Hakuhodo, puts it like this:

‘Comparative advertising is certainly getting more popular in Japan, but

no existing advertiser depends on it. Like the imported Pepsi ad, it’s

not illegal, it’s just not done.’

Considering the emphasis that the Japanese have traditionally placed on

harmony above all else, it is unlikely that more companies will risk

upsetting a rival with aggressive campaigns as they do in the West. But

the Ford Japan president, Konen Suzuki, feels that the startling new

form of advertising is the way forward, in that it at least shows an

attempt to meet the needs of the consumer over those of the