The World: Japan's ads are far from being lost in translation

It certainly doesn't pay to look down your nose at Japanese advertising, there is method in the madness, James Parsons writes.

Many Western impressions of Japanese advertising culture might be more than a little informed by Bill Murray's spoof TV spot for Suntory Whisky in Lost in Translation.

This pastiche makes a Western audience laugh because it suggests there's something naive about Japanese advertising, and particularly Japanese celebrity-based work.

There's an awful lot of celebrity advertising on TV in Japan, and much of it relies for its impact on the presence of the celebrity alone.

Many in the West see this as the manifestation of a wider culture that is somehow behind our own. But they'd be wrong. A closer look reveals a complex story behind the Japanese industry's love affair with the celebrity endorsement.

About 40 per cent of all TV media is bought by just two agencies, Dentsu and Hakuhodo. The bigger agencies also own sizeable chunks of a slew of the broadcasting networks, meaning they've become "wholesalers" of TV airtime.

And with the kind of power they have, they are able to shape the nature of the market. A market made up of lots of 15-second slots rather than few 30-second slots creates more competition for airtime, and thus better yields. What agency wouldn't want to encourage this?

It is possible to buy 30-second slots, but not easy, and they're not just twice the price of a 15-second spot. Clients who want a certain air weight at a certain time buy two consecutive 15-second slots. With no 30-second spot to fill those consecutive slots (they'd have to pay over the odds for it), what one gets in Japan is the sight of seeing the same ad running twice, back-to-back, in commercial breaks.

It's hard to tell a narrative of any depth or complexity in 15 seconds. So the best anybody can hope for is impact and awareness using three key weapons: noise, a catchy soundtrack and - the Holy Grail - a resonant and memorable face.

What this means is that ad breaks feature a dizzying cavalcade of ads, each fighting for impact. In this context, where TV spots run the risk of drowning in their own noise, a familiar face is hot property. Hotter still if they're likely to appear in a forthcoming blockbuster, or as a guest on the chatshow following the break in question.

But only so many people can be sufficiently familiar, so this means there is only a limited pool of stars considered worth having at any one time. One star may find themselves endorsing five brands at any one time. Anyone visiting Japan earlier this year may have wondered which brand Koyuki wasn't endorsing (Koyuki starred as Tom Cruise's love interest in The Last Samurai).

Of course, if it's stand-out you're after, there are other options. Other media, for instance. This is where Japanese brand communications looks more sophisticated. Visitors will find a highly developed deployment of out-of-home media. They'll find ingenuity in the online media arena which leads the world.

Meanwhile, media-neutral approaches, championed by the likes of Naked Communications, which opened in Tokyo this year, are forcing consideration of how to build valuable brands more effectively, using TV if it can be proved to be the most effective, but a myriad of other media options if it can't. Even in the constraints of a 15-second TV ad, agencies are still coming up with brilliant ways of standing out.

DDB Japan's recent VW Beetle spot gives us a car on the beach, and, apart from the crash of the waves breaking on the shore, that's about it. This picture of serenity has a rare power in the context of a typical screaming two-minute ad break.

In many ways, while it's tempting for Westerners to see the 15-second slot as something of a lower order, there are all sorts of reasons why it fits here; and even points to a more sophisticated marketing culture. In a market where there's a deeply rooted culture of research and development in organisations, brands retain momentum less by means of dancing shadows, and more by bringing out new stuff.

Some firebrands suggest that, in contrast with disciplined Japanese agencies concerned with getting real, palpable new products out there, the Western discourse about building brand imagery through elaborate narratives is just fluff.

So back to Murray and his Suntory times. Well, yes, brands in categories such as home entertainment, personal care and athlete's foot treatment do rely heavily on celebrity endorsement, but it is an error to think this is because the business of marketing is in any way "behind", or that the audience "lacks advertising sophistication", or any other similar haughty phrase that one hears on the Western marketing scene; indeed, the opposite might even be the case.

- James Parsons is the president of Flamingo Tokyo, the Japanese branch of Flamingo International, a London-based qualitative research and brand consultancy.