Out-of-home advertising in Japan looks avant-garde to a Western eye, but practitioners on the ground face some interesting challenges.
Not least among them is the Yakuza. The presence of these traditional organised crime groups is the "unspoken, but ever-present reality of outdoor in Japan", Jonny Shaw, the head of Naked Communications in Tokyo, says. "You have to cover off the Mafia since they are the ones who really police the cityscape." And that hampers creative potential.
Although Japan has created some memorable advertising stunts (think TBWA's famed "Impossible Sprint" campaign for Adidas), Shaw says they "never really impacted on the public consciousness" because they could only be executed in low-traffic areas.
A further challenge is market saturation. Japan has an enormous outdoor inventory, which means only an ad with a strong element of difference will achieve any sort of stand-out.
We asked the main agencies for the cream of their recent outdoor work, and put it up for scrutiny by two media experts. Not all met with favour.
Yet innovation and inspiration has helped induce advertisers to more than double their collective spend on outdoor media in Japan in 2007, according to new Dentsu figures.
Innovation in terms of increasing sensory appeal, for instance. Recent campaigns by Dentsu include a subway instalment for Tower Records that allowed passers-by to listen to music by inserting their earphones into a jack in the wall, and a giant Fanta bottle that released scented bubbles at the touch of a button; a campaign by Hakuhodo for Sony allowed members of the public to change the colour of a building via the internet, as part of the "colour like no other" campaign.
Outdoor campaigns are also becoming more integrated. "Quick response" codes, which allow people to access websites directly from ads via their mobile phones, and enable marketers to track ROI, have become commonplace on Japanese billboards.
The past 12 months have seen a rise in "area-jacking" - the short-term bagging of multiple outdoor advertising spaces in high-traffic areas such as subway stations and entertainment complexes like Tokyo Midtown. "It is important in Tokyo to turn commercial facilities into media, because it is the best occasion to encourage consumers to buy the product," Kojiro Masuko, a senior member of Dentsu's Outdoor Media Service Division, says.
Yet, outdoor and transit advertising together still only account for a mere 9.5 per cent of the Japanese ad market, which is worth 404.1 billion yen and 259.1 billion yen respectively.
"We should be seeing the emergence of outdoor as a more significant channel, but its importance is dwarfed by the rise of the web," Shaw says.
Matt Eaton, the managing director of MindShare Japan, thinks it is up to agencies to raise the profile of outdoor, though. "Channels are judged by the communications they transfer," he says. "If the work is great, the channel looks great. If it isn't, well, it's obvious."
WHAT THE MEDIA EXPERTS THINK
MATT EATON, managing director, Mindshare Japan
Johnson & Johnson Reach - (McCann Erickson/Universal McCann)
Attention-grabbing? Possibly. Confusing? Probably. It appears that someone has stuck a series of toilet seats to the walls. Essentially, it fails on the old adage "if something is worth doing, it's worth doing well". The work shows a determination to be clever before being clear, because it is based on a production technique rather than an idea. The medium is also not being used appropriately since the work conveys a multitude of educational statements.
Adidas - (TBWA\Hakuhodo)
This is not Adidas' best. It plays to a captive audience around the Tokyo Dome; and it fails to capitalise on the strengths of the medium, being too cluttered and a bit scrambled. The work (in which striking shots of the Giants baseball team are superimposed on coin lockers] may look new to some markets, but it has been done by others previously. All in all, I think it leaves the audience feeling a bit flat.
Microsoft Xbox Blue Dragon - (Dentsu)
The Xbox Blue Dragon execution (in which people play with shadows on buildings) is spot on. The brand essence is preserved. The location is in a part of Tokyo where the target audience is most concentrated. It engages the consumer, while many events or stunts fail to. And it's high impact with cut-through, even in an area that is cluttered with illuminated outdoor sites. It will also have been in a range of shops stocking Xbox games. Not overly complicated, granted, but that's why it succeeds. Neat.
AKIHIKO KANEKO, Media Group Director, Outdoor Strategic Print Division, Universal McCann
Haagen-Dazs - (JWT/MindShare)
Novelty, collectable tub badges stuck on to posters aim to increase visibility of the banana caramel latte flavour ice-cream, as well as drive traffic to the website and create word-of-mouth. Work for Haagen-Dazs hazelnut (creating a forest carpet in a station walkway) takes the brand into untraditional locations to allow passers-by to get a "taste (experience)" of the brand, and create word-of-mouth. However, this alone has become quite commonplace in Japan, and campaigns are expected to do more than merely create buzz.
Sony Bravia - (Hakuhodo)
This was an interactive campaign to create a buzz and imprint the brand by using the Sony building in Ginza in tandem with an online campaign. This is a truly involving and engaging type of communication. The general public was able to experience the colours and have fun without being at the venue. But whether or not this led to real sales is questionable.
Bold - (Grey/MediaCom)
This is a perfect combination of promotion and viral communication - a textbook case. It makes best use of the World Athletics Championships in Osaka 2007 - the timing of the advertising, location, cross media and the use of one of the athletes. (Actors posing as famous athletes with (freshly washed) towels over their heads, appeared to have walked out of poster ads.) Not only does this sell Bold, the product, it also has a societal message - which is cheering for Japan.