One thing that strikes first-time viewers of Japanese advertising is the preponderance of so-called "image ads." Japanese advertising, even when it does give clear reasons to buy, tends to package ads in a softer way. The primary reason for this is Japanese social organization revolving around the group rather than the individual.
Activity in Japan is based upon group consensus and conformity. This means, ideally, that all important members of a group must accept a proposalbefore any new action is taken -- and when it is taken, all members must conform. Interestingly, this ideal of consensus recognizes that there exists a multiplicity of viewpoints and not necessarily just one correct interpretation. This concept was expressed in the famous movie Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four people give differing, yet equally plausible accounts of a violent crime. This ability of the Japanese to simultaneously accept diffuse viewpoints permits a multi-faceted, almost "cubist" advertising approach. It frequently encompasses the whole gestalt of the product, unlike the narrow, single-point perspective of traditional Western ads. In some cases, it may even take on aspects of surrealism, complete with subconscious imagery.
A tendency toward indirectness is reflected in the Japanese language itself and is rooted in the homogeneity of Japanese society. Many Japanese sentences do not even specify the subject, and a verb or adjective alone is often sufficient. Especially important are the mental associations which create the desired mood or image. The Japanese generally avoid Western style logical sales messages which are felt to be "kudoi", an adjective which means tedious. They prefer to communicate through intuition, indirect hints, and subtle suggestions rather than through verbiage and logic.
When trying to propagate a viewpoint, Japanese avoid confrontation, aiming to include the other party and thereby maintain group integrity.
This is expressed in the Japanese technique of Nemawashi, literally "turning the roots" which involves gradually changing the attitudes of each individual, based on personal empathy. In other words, desire is created through personal trust or fellow feeling, rather than authority which while feared is also distrusted. In advertising this means that horizontal identification is important, whereas both top-down command and vertical aspiration to a higher station are suspect. A "talking head" ad in the West might have a dentist promoting a toothpaste or a famous actress giving a testimonial for a luxury soap. In Japan the talker would more likely be a member of the target's own group, such as a co-worker or sister (who might be played by a famous actress). Foreign brands frequently stumble on such points, thinking that in adapting their advertising to the Japanese market, it is enough to simply switch from foreigners to Japanese while retaining the same structure as the original ad.
An apparent exception to this rule are mature sports figures, particularly baseball and golf stars, both Japanese and foreign, who are used for testimonials because they are able to cause in the target a suspension of disbelief. This is possible because of the deep identification that people have with sports teams and individual players whose careers they may have been following since childhood.
Otherwise, when foreign celebrities are used, the purpose is usually as an attention getting device. Examples range from body builder Lisa Lyon and ex-body builder movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger to singer Madonna and director Woody Allen. Though not exotic and therefore less useful as attention getters, Japanese celebrities have the advantage of being acceptable target group surrogate members and therefore can work to maintain the target's interest.
Avoidance of exclusivity is also one reason why comparative advertising is so rare -- it is important not to make anyone lose face in Japan. Similarly, contempt or scorn -- as in the famous American hair tonic ad with the line "Still using that greasy kid's stuff?" -- are uncommon.
This ties in with the concept of Uchi (family, company, the group) vs. Soto (others) which is basic to Japanese social organization. In Japan, there is little point in trying to gain cooperation from someone unless you have an introduction or are otherwise thought to be part of the same group. Associating a product with the target group, rather than with an individual, is a way of maintaining interest. Unsuccessful advertising for American products in Japan has ignored this Japanese characteristic. In a series of TV commercials for Kent cigarettes that was eventually dropped, one man, among many, ends up getting the girl. Since his success is exclusive, in the Japanese milieu this ad contained the unfortunate sub-message that men who smoke the brand are socially insensitive. In the replacement campaign, developed entirely in Japan, the whole group of smokers benefit equally.
A successful approach in a series of commercials for Lark cigarettes, shows James Coburn gaining safe passage in threatening foreign situations by showing his pack of cigarettes like a passport and saying "Speak Lark." This is well adapted to Japanese thinking because his behavior caused him to be included in a group rather than excluded.
The difference can be a subtle one. In America, a famous catch phrase for cigarettes agressively asserted "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch." In Japan an equally successful beer ad simply offered "Sapporo is your beer." Or again, an American car ad asked about aspirations with the slogan "Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick?" A Japanese car ad asked simply "How are you doing?"
By identifying with the target or blending into the target's environment, the Japanese ad aims to gain "mind share" as a prerequisite to market share.
Interestingly, Honda's famous "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" campaign would have worked as well in Japan to create empathy for Honda as it did in America to disassociate the Hells Angels biker image from motorcycles. Recently, Lawson's convenience store advertising in Japan used the same concept as Honda's. It showed the nice customers you meet at Lawson's, thereby gaining empathy and simultaneously disassociating Lawson's from the lonely, all-night convenience store image.
In many ways, Japanese ads seem designed to entertain rather than sell the sponsor's product. Certainly there is less news value and more entertainment value than in the West. Although one reason is the culturally ingrained avoidance of the direct approach, mentioned above, another is the greater general access to product information in sources other than advertising, per se.
Specialized magazines cater to consumers eager for information about new gadgets. Separate "new product" magazines target male and female consumers. There are also videos (available at convenience stores) and TV programs on the latest cars. This kind of "editorial" product coverage in the media reduces the need for ads to communicate facts.
By the same token, when there is little outside information available for a product, the advertising tends to become more hard-sell. You can see this in ads for detergents, cleansers, and personal hygiene items which are often promoted on narrow technical merits, particularly when launching new products.
Entertainment value is also critical in holding viewer attention in TV where your audience is capable of zapping the ad by remote control. Song and dance numbers that run throughout a TV commercial are popular for this reason. Another tactic is the mini-series TV commercial, where the audience wonders what will happen in the next dramatic "installment." We are also seeing more conflict-based slice-of-life situations such as new employee versus old boss, wife versus husband, or child versus squabbling parents. By going against the cultural grain of harmony, these ads involve the user at a gut level, creating the immediacy necessary to hold interest. Humor is used to balance the conflict.
The moral is that in Japan you must always keep in mind the social pressure for conformity, while balancing image advertising with precisely-dosed news value. When focussing on product benefits or promises, it is important to describe and/or demonstrate them in a way that is compatible with Japanese modes of expression and group dynamics. This will be affected by product category and by demographics. With parity products, image is everything. On the other hand, the "new Japanese consumer" is much more like what we expect in the West, focussing on price and performance to a greater degree than did previous generations. However, it is interesting to note that just as younger Japanese consumers are now becoming more receptive to comparative advertising and narrow benefit-oriented appeals, American advertisers are coming to recognize the persuasive power of a pure image-oriented "feel good" approach.
Stephen Benfey, 1996