Reading Japanese Advertising

by John L. McCreery

What does it mean to understand an ad? And what specifically does it mean to understand a Japanese ad? The ads we examine are more than an opportunity to learn about Japanese advertising; they are also an opportunity to learn something about the society in which those ads were produced.

When asked if I might be willing to contribute something to the SWET Newsletter, my mind turned instantly to a subject dear to all our hearts, Japanese advertising. We love it, we hate it, but one thing’s for sure: it’s hard to ignore. Sometimes we have to translate it. Sometimes we have to answer questions about it. Sometimes we present advertising proposals and have to make them sufficiently persuasive that clients will spend large sums of money to produce the ads and buy space in the media in which they appear.

All of these activities assume that we understand the ads. But what does it mean to understand an ad? And what specifically does it mean to understand a Japanese ad? These are the questions addressed in a seminar titled “The Making and Meaning of Advertising” that I teach each year at Sophia University. Every year, new groups of students (mostly European, some Asian, more rarely American, Japanese, or from other parts of the world) find new answers to these questions and improve on the ones found in previous years. Our knowledge deepens not only because fresh minds bring fresh viewpoints to the research but also, I believe, because our method addresses details in the ads instead of just generalizations about them.

The Tokyo Copywriters Club Annual Ad Contest

Our primary source is the latest edition of the TCC Nenkan (Tokyo Copywriters Club annual), a massive tome containing the winners of the Tokyo Copywriters Club’s annual ad contest. The sample is not unbiased. What we see is what the club’s panel of judges considered the best advertising produced in the previous year in Japan. The judges are advertising “creatives,” individuals who have succeeded in a highly competitive industry. They are members of a self-selected elite (the only way to become a club member is to win a prize). Like creatives everywhere, they tend to be more concerned with innovative thinking and artistic flair than account executives (who care more about whether clients can be persuaded to buy and produce ads) or marketing managers (who care more about whether products actually sell).

In addition to the bias in the sample, we confront another problem. My students invariably ask, “Did the campaign work?” I invariably respond, “How could we find out?” All that we really know from seeing these ads in the TCC Nenkan is that the judges awarded them prizes. Did they work in the marketplace? Did they sell products and services? Our primary source is silent on these issues.

We are in a situation not unlike that of the archaeologist who has opened a tomb and found an interesting collection of artifacts. Or perhaps a better analogy is a scholar who studies fragments of ancient texts. We can only look at the details of the samples we have before us, compare them with each other and with other collections, and try to imagine and reverse-engineer both the processes that created them and the impact they may have had.

We are, however, helped in this effort by the sheer size of our sample. Each year’s TCC Nenkan is filled with hundreds of ads. These are a subset of more than 4,000 entries, divided by industry into thirteen categories. These categories are broad, and any given category may include a wide variety of ads. In early 2003, for example, a researcher with an interest in cosmetics analyzed the ads in category D. She was startled to discover that, along with cosmetics, ads for pharmaceuticals, household cleaning products, and photographic film were included, since all are products of chemical process industries.

In these circumstances, the best that we can hope for is to get a sense of the creative possibilities explored by Japanese ads in one particular year and ponder what they may tell us about the state of particular industries, the Japanese market, and Japanese society during the year in question. I suggest to my students that we begin analysis of an ad by quickly jotting down what first strikes us about it. These first impressions are vital, both for what we learn about the ads and for what we learn about ourselves through our reactions to them. Then we are ready to delve more deeply.

Step 1 is to reverse-engineer the communication strategy that informed the production of the ad. Who is the target? What is the advertiser’s objective? Simple name awareness, understanding of key sales points, an improved brand or corporate image, a reminder of an already well-known message, or motivation of the target group to try the product are all possibilities. What is the proposition? What is the single sentence that best sums up what the advertiser wants to say? What is the rationale for the ad? Why does the advertiser believe that communicating this proposition to that target will achieve the objective? What is the supporting argument? Which facts or images lend credence to the proposition from the target’s viewpoint?

Step 2 is to ask what the creatives added to this basic strategy. How do the words and images in the ad add value to the proposition and help to make the ad eye-catching, funny, dramatic, exciting, compelling, or, to some audience members, just plain dumb? In the terms defined by classical rhetoric, it is here that we move from the argument, a matter of facts and logic, to rhetoric proper, the use of tropes to manipulate audience emotions.

Step 3 is to compare the ad with others. It is important to note whether an ad is part of a larger campaign. Shared formats and taglines may indicate that an ad is not a one-time effort. Next, broaden the comparison to include competitors’ ads. Here is where we find clues to issues and developments affecting the state of the industry and develop a sense of the range of creative possibilities acceptable in ads from that industry.

In step 4, we adopt a broader historical and sociological perspective. In his book Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, anthropologist William M. O’Barr observes that historical or ethnographic distance affects the way we look at ads. It separates us from the original target audiences, directing our attention away from the product (which may seem to us only quaint or exotic) to the taken-for-granted background of values and social relationships that constitute a culture. For my students, the ads we examine are more than an opportunity to learn about Japanese advertising; they are also an opportunity to learn something about the society in which those ads were produced.

The KDDI Launch Campaign

As an example, I will examine the TCC Nenkan 2001 Grand Prix winner, the KDDI launch campaign. First impressions suggest that the print and TV ads were from entirely different campaigns. The print ads catch the eye with their graphic simplicity and complete lack of images. The TV commercials are far more complex. The bright orange that fills the background of the print executions is absent from the TV versions. However, the signature logo is used in both media. Both executions adopt a similarly ironic stance toward the act of advertising itself.

At first glance, the communication strategy seems simple and straightforward. Directed to a general audience, this advertising simply announces that KDD (001 for international calls, 0077 for domestic calls), the au cell phone network, and DION Internet provider are merging to form KDDI. A closer look, however, reveals some subtleties.

In both print and TV, KDDI is positioned against NTT, in what students of advertising will instantly recognize as a reprise of the famous Avis “We try harder” campaign against Hertz Rent-a-Car. The overarching theme is how much more interesting life would be if NTT, the provider that dominates the telecommunications market in Japan, had a serious rival. The complete lack of mention of Japan Telecom/Vodafone, the third major player in this market, is also notable. Strategically, this absence suggests another famous example, the cola wars between Coca Cola and Pepsi, in which third-ranked Royal Crown was ignored and largely squeezed out of the market, its presence overwhelmed by the interest generated in the battle between its larger competitors. In sum, KDDI is positioned as the newcomer against NTT, as a challenger who makes the market more interesting and more fun, and implicitly against Japan Telecom/Vodafone, a competitor ignored in these ads as if to imply that it is not even in the game.

The first in the TCC Nenkan collection of the KDDI launch campaign print ads is a newspaper ad that consists of only three main graphic elements: the bright orange background and campaign logo mentioned above and a narrow white band at the foot of the page containing the information in orange type that on October 1 KDDI would begin operations. The phrase “Shussha wa ashita kara” (Tomorrow, we go to work) suggests that this was a teaser ad placed on September 30.

The campaign logo appears to be printed on a strip of blue denim, an effect created by its frayed edges. It contains three pieces of text, the new corporate logo “KDDI,” the English phrase “Designing the Future,” and, in roman letters, the message, “surōgan mo daiji da keredo, jikkō suru no ga ichiban daiji” (Although slogans are important, what you actually do is the most important). This third element contains the first hint of irony. In this teaser ad, the campaign logo is positioned in the eye-catching upper left corner of the page. In subsequent print executions, it is moved to the lower right corner, making space for a big, bold headline centered in the orange background. The art directors among us might also notice that, in the different executions, the blue denim strip sits at different angles on the page, an effect that is deliberately casual.

The headline on the second print ad reads Ganbare NTT, ganbaru KDDI (NTT fight on, KDDI is fighting on). By changing one syllable, the copywriter has highlighted the difference between the energetic newcomer and the old-timer that needs some cheering on.

Headlines for a series of small posters read as follows:

  1. Nihon de niban senshu, demo sekai de ichiban ni nareba ii jan (Isn’t it OK to be No. 2 in Japan if you’re No. 1 worldwide?).
  2. Kenka shite mo katenai aite nara betsu na koto o yaru shika nai (If you can’t win no matter how hard you try, you’d better do something else).
  3. Denwadai no nesagette itsumo itachigokko da na (yasuku naru no wa ii kedo) (Lowering telephone charges is a vicious circle [although cheaper is better]).
  4. Kokumin toshite wa NTT to KDDI ga kyōsō shite kureru to omoshiroku naru to omō na (From a Japanese point of view, competition between NTT and KDDI will make things more interesting).
  5. Tsumannai kōkoku o suru kigyō wa hobo tsumannai (Companies with boring ads are almost all . . . boring).

The series concludes with a third newspaper ad in which the white information band has expanded to fill the whole ad and the orange type spells out in detail how the new company sees itself.

The TV commercials will be examined in a subsequent issue of the SWET Newsletter.