An upturn in the Japanese economy has given its ad industry a needed boost. Richard Cook discovers that Japanese have a healthy appetite for media, but not computers

An upturn in the Japanese economy has given its ad industry a needed

boost. Richard Cook discovers that Japanese have a healthy appetite for

media, but not computers


When the Japanese Prime Minister announced plans late last year to spend

pounds 62.50 for every man, woman and child in the country to bail out

Japan’s failed housing-loan companies, perversely he finally started to

restore confidence in a country whose self belief had been sternly

tested for the first time in a generation.

The post-war acceleration of Japan to become the world’s dominant

economy had appeared effortless. But in the past few years it has become

increasingly clear that the same sort of growth rates could not be

sustained indefinitely. When gross domestic product fell for the first

time in more than 20 years in 1993, and then fell again the following

year, it looked as though the Japanese economic miracle was over. That

this coincided with a series of financial scandals culminating in the

collapse of the housing-loan companies added insult to injury.

But Prime Minister Hashimoto has since presided over renewed economic

optimism. GDP rose again last year, while ad expenditure, which fell by

8 per cent in 1994 on the back of the general economic malaise, bounced

back in 1995 to finish 5.7 per cent ahead. Forecasts for 1996 by Saatchi

and Saatchi are predicting growth of a further 1.7 per cent this year

and nearly 2 per cent in 1997, indicating that confidence has finally

returned to the advertising community after a couple of exceptionally

torrid years.


Japan has the broadest media choice in the world. There are 124 national

daily newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 72 million

copies, including the two largest newspapers in the world - the Yomiuri

Shinbun, with a daily sale of more than ten million, and an adult

readership of more than 37 million, and the Asahi Shinbun, which sells

8.2 million copies a day and has a readership of around 30 million.

Nevertheless TV is the largest advertising medium, representing

something like half of all media spend. There are 48 VHF TV channels and

74 UHF channels. Two thirds of households have more than one TV, 85 per

cent have a video recorder and, according to Saatchi and Saatchi

research, an incredible 95 per cent of all Japanese adults will see the

television once a day, while three quarters will see a newspaper every


Nor does the media torrent stop with newspapers and TV. There are no

fewer than 95 radio stations and 21,000 magazine titles. ‘The Japanese

have this voracious appetite for information,’ McCann-Erickson Japan’s

vice-president, Gary Titterton, explains. ‘And incredibly, in addition,

the sogo shosha - the big trading companies - are in a sense all media

owners, disseminating information throughout their organisations.’

In fact, according to one survey, Japan’s largest trading house,

Mitsubishi Corporation, is the most effective information gathering

organisation in the country, well ahead of both the media and the

government. Mitsubishi transmits information equivalent to 7,000 pages

of the New York Times within the company every day.


The Japanese are not nearly as computer literate as might be supposed.

In fact, fewer than 10 per cent of all offices are computerised, while

just 9 per cent of personal computers are hooked into a network of some

kind. In the US, the corresponding figures are 42 and 52 per cent

respectively. There has been considerable resistance to the Internet and

e-mail, partly because of language difficulties but also because of

cultural differences. Japanese companies remain extremely hierarchical

and discourage the free-opinion exchange that e-mail encourages.

‘More individualism is starting to creep into the way that companies are

structured, but it is a very slow process,’ McCanns’ Titterton explains.

‘The systems have always been rigidly based on hierarchy and age and the

idea that the longer you serve the company, the higher up you go. There

is some dissatisfaction with that way of thinking, especially as the new

commercial realities mean that few companies can offer a job for life


Although, as might be expected, there is a phenomenal amount of research

available to agencies, too much of it is quantitative, and there is felt

to be an absence of useful qualitative work.

The majority of creative work in Japan has always originated in the

country - even the most confident of gaijin, or foreigners, admits that

the cultural gulf is otherwise too daunting. ‘Volvo brought its film out

with just a Japanese voiceover and that worked quite well,’ Richard

Buddle, the chairman of Hakuhodo Lintas, says. ‘But that was very much

the exception. Most of the agencies here only have Japanese creative

directors and staff. And the local talent is outstanding - to make a TV

ad work in the 15 seconds that most spots last is really something.’


The biggest problem that remains is the gulf in comprehension that

exists between Western and Japanese sensibilities. McCann-Erickson’s

creative director, Marc Shaffner, recalls two ads that brought this

difference home to him. The first was for a Sony portable sound system

and showed a two-headed zebra crossing the road. There was no product

shot - just the name of the product and the Sony logo flashed up at the

end. The second showed a cow giving birth to a calf as two farmers

watched. Again, the only thing that identified the product was a flash

of the logo, in this case for Suntory whiskey, at the end. ‘I just

didn’t get the ads at all but they both did fantastically well in sales

terms. The idea was if you liked the ad you would feel good about the

company, but it just didn’t work with me. But then I think that’s just

part of the cultural differences that anyone working in Japan has to


For agency staff in an even more fiercely competitive Japanese

marketplace, another potential hazard was highlighted in March this year

when a young Dentsu junior tragically took his own life. The agency was

ordered to pay damages of pounds 750,000 to his parents after a district

court heard how the boy routinely worked 18 hour days and sometimes

longer, and was never given a day off in the year and a half he served

with the agency.