Archive for the ‘Advertising’ Category

Aoi Miyazaki for Emporio Armani

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Long ago there was a simpler age for foreign brands in Japan, where the mere mention of “The West” would conjure up images of luxury, progress, and sophistication within the minds of Japanese consumers. Due to a development of greater domestic confidence in the last three decades, however, European and North American companies can no longer rely on exploiting a national inferiority complex to pull in customers.

But that doesn’t mean that Japanese consumers now unconditionally prefer Japanese things to Western things either. No, the current market requires a well-rehearsed luge run through complex and shifting racial and national semiotic codes that almost no one can perfectly articulate.

As I explained in the previous essay “Race as Fashion Signifier,” “real clothes” magazines like CanCam or ViVi exclusively use Japanese and half-Japanese models to illustrate a plausible context for the clothing. High-fashion magazines like Spur and Ginza, on the other hand, deploy foreign (Caucasian) models to reflect the fact that the center of legitimization for the high-fashion world is “abroad.” Based on this principle, foreign luxury brands have had little reason to not use global campaign advertisements (meaning: non-Japanese models) in Japanese fashion magazines. Advertorial (“tie-up”) can often be used to show readers’ favorite local models wearing the latest season, while protecting the sanctity of the pure ad. But basically, there is an unstated rule that foreign luxury brands never “stoop” to the level of Japanese local culture by using familiar faces.1

Emporio Armani, however, has gone against scripture by conspicuously using popular Japanese actress Miyazaki Aoi in its new print advertisements. By many measures, Miyazaki is the “It Girl” in Japan of the moment, but she should be defined as a celebrated actress within Japan rather than one who has found broader acclaim overseas.  Compare Miyazaki to Kikuchi Rinko — star of Babel. Chanel used Kikuchi in a campaign last year, but this was basically a hedge: Japanese, yes, but an “international” woman who was nominated for an Oscar.

Miyazaki is not particularly “international,” but instead, can only be used to introduce the brand as something that everyday Japanese girls can wear. So while there is glamor in having a “star” model the clothing, Miyazaki definitely brings Emporio Armani to the “Japanese” level. She is “life-sized” (等身大) rather than “larger than life.”

This particular quality of Miyazaki’s celebrity may be a perfect balance for Emporio Armani, however, seeing that the brand is a bridge line. In the context of this strategic goal, she is able to act as a “bridge” between Japanese consumers and this “elite” foreign brand. We can be sure, however, that Armani would most likely avoid using a local Japanese star for the face of its premier Giorgio Armani line. So perhaps the racial hierarchy in Japanese fashion is stable at the extremes (West for high, East for low). All the interesting and innovation in bending these rules exists in the middle of the market, where the intersection of the two worlds can be constantly re-framed and re-negotiated.

1 There are probably counterexamples that come to mind, but it’s not that common.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Yappari hade ja nai”

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Despite a national love affair with television, the Japanese do not watch much cable TV. Perfect data on penetration is hard to obtain (the New York Times suggests that only 1 in 5 have satellite or cable), but when compared to other OECD nations, Japan does not rank particularly high. Although broadband bundling has made cable TV an easy and inexpensive option for most Japanese living in highly-populated areas, there is still no public rush to expand the number of channels on the TV from a half-dozen to 30+. Perhaps Japanese consumers demand a common programming experience to suit their social needs, or perhaps powerful advertising companies have some nefarious anti-cable strategy to keep eyeballs on the Big Five in order to maintain high ad rates for terrestrial TV. In the United States, cable diffusion has only increased cultural fracture and lowered ad rates for the traditional networks. So maybe what’s good for the Big Five is good for the Japanese nation.

But even without access to exact penetration rates, I have no doubt that cable TV is not particularly important in Japan. I am a cable subscriber, and the programs I enjoy seem to have only secured three or four advertisers, who have decided to play the same advertisements over the course of an entire television season.

While catching up on Lost Season 3 thanks to AXN, I was greeted week after week with the exact same commercial from MasterCard. In this Japanese adaptation of the credit card’s renown “Priceless” campaign, veteran Japanese actress Ohtake Shinobu tries on a new dress and exclaims to her on-screen daughter, “Yappari hade ja nai?” — meaning “See, isn’t this too flashy?” This mother and daughter have traveled to New York and are getting all dressed up in the hotel room to have a “priceless” night at a jazz club. (This level of gala festivities is apparently required for a mother in Japan to breach the topic of love lives with her children.)

There is nothing particularly odd or upsetting about this commercial, but the fact that it plays two or three times over the course of an hour, week after week — even during year-end repeats — results in a Lost viewer treated to the commercial around 100 times by the end of the series. Thanks to the repetition, I know every single line of the commercial, every inflection in delivery, every single cut, every single musical cue, every single note from the saxophone. I can tell you that there have been at least three distinct edits of the commercial, with the mother-daughter dialogue being changed from a dig against the father (“What’s your boyfriend like?” / “Like Dad.” / “You have bad taste!” Ha ha.) to the less biting banter “Tell me about him.” / “Do you want to know?” Around my house now, any exclamation of a two-syllable Japanese word is uttered within the form “Yappari —- ja nai?” in Ohtake’s pronunciation. This commercial has somehow become a part of my life.

Most companies aim for their commercials to gain maximum exposure, but I doubt many worry about the danger of over-exposure — the act of blasting TV fans with an endless barrage of identical promotional messages. No consumer could possibly enjoy this repetition, especially repeated over a half-year. What’s more, we modern consumers and TV viewers have come to expect a certain amount of diversity in weekly advertising — not only in the number of advertising companies but the number of different commercials provided by these companies. Repetition of the same advertisement suggests either advertiser laziness or non-competitiveness for the media space. The popular animation cable channel Animax, on the other hand, appears to be popular thanks to a plethora of advertisers and commercials.

In this mostly unconscious logic, more commercials -> more advertiser interest -> more viewers -> more legitimacy as a media product. So many products in Japan require some proof of social legitimacy before consumer feel comfortable with adoption. Cable TV is no different. The perceived value of cable TV programming content could hinge on the quality of commercials provided — and this would be another barrier for widespread penetration.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation

Friday, November 16th, 2007

If the promotional materials are to be believed, one out of every ten Japanese has already shed tears over the “keitai novel” Koizora 『恋空』. This level of cultural penetration would make the work the mainstream media event of the 21st century — quite a feat for an amateurishly-written love story about gang rape, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, and premature cancer deaths. The figure of 12 million may be a misreading of internet download statistics, but Koizora’s success in mainstream markets has been the real deal. Beginning as a keitai shōsetsu posted on a host-focused bulletin board in 2005, downloads of the story from the keitai novel site Mahō no Island eventually hit 10 million in its first year. The cleaned-up book version sold in the millions, a manga version appeared, and the recent film adaptation debuted at #3 on the box office. A “side-story” Kimizora: ‘koizora’ another story is currently topping the fiction charts.

Although we at clast have been skeptical in the past about the internet’s ability to completely crack the old production systems for culture in Japan, Koizora clearly presents the case of a total “nobody” creating content, “publishing” it through an open website, gaining grass-roots popularity, and finally winning sponsorship from the larger entertainment industry (in this case, Starts Publishing and Tōhō Company, with help from Lawson’s, Tsutaya, NTT, and Mitsuya Cider etc.) Some wonder how this particular work found its way into the system so quickly (when more popular keitai writers continue to be ignored), but just as in the Chad Vader model, Japanese companies are clearly using the internet as a testing ground for new talent.

In other ways, however, Koizora is just another example of traditional Japanese diffusion patterns for pop culture. Whether schoolgirl fashion or a hot band, microtrends in Japan very rarely show clean linear (or even exponential) growth from the grass-roots level up to the masses. Once a certain product or style becomes slightly visible on the street, the mainstream media complex scoops it up and propels it into national news/advertising campaigns — thus creating an immediate explosion in interest or participation for the entire country. The effect is a huge jump in diffusion rather than a smooth curve. In the case of Koizora, the original “phone novel” phenomenon may have been impressive for that niche, but the book printing was promoted through mass-targeted television advertising; the subsequent high sales should not be too surprising.

The most interesting feature of Koizora‘s success may be its author — “Mika” (美嘉) —  about whom we know absolutely nothing. Despite being the best-selling young female author of recent days and an overnight millionaire, “Mika” has chosen not to reveal herself to the public. Like Densha Otoko before, Mika is essentially anonymous and untraceable. We get nothing more than a first-name and some attributed quotes. Koizora is supposed to be a “true story” of her youth, or at least, “based on her experiences.”

Since nobody in the Japanese media appears interested in investigating the real Mika and readers do not have problems with the gross inaccuracies in Mika’s depiction of pregnancy and malignant lymphoma, the author has no pressure to add a face and full name to her semi-literary stardom. Anonymity is important for individuals to share their creations on the internet, but there is also a sympathy and understanding amongst Japanese consumers towards protecting the anonymity of those who request it. Anonymity, however, is also a key component of this form of confessional literature. Not only does the “nobodiness” of the author make it seem more “real” and “personal,” anonymity protects seemingly-autobiographical narrative works from the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces danger of exposé.

Empathy is the key emotional response to a book like Koizora. Readers cry because they have emotionally invested in the pain and suffering of this protagonist — feelings no doubt amplified by the assumption that the terrible gang-rape bullying and teenage death actually happened to this pitiful author. Once the narrative becomes “based on a true story,” revealing the true degree of fictionalization may lead to collective let-down. If Mika were really a forty-year old data-entry clerk who experienced completely unremarkable teenage years, the whole prerequisites at the base of the “empathy” start to fall apart. It’s not fun to cry for the pain of a friend who has lost her mother and then find out the next day that the mom is alive and she was lying the whole time to get you to pay for drinks.

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle. Even in the face of possible fame and fortune, amateur writers are finding it more helpful to hide real identities in order to reap in the benefits of building fantastical realities for mass empathy. The masses of readers are more likely to tolerate terrible writing, melodramatic clichés, and incredulous stories of sex and death on the assumption that they are first-hand accounts. The Internet has made the narrative behind the “success” of a creative work as important as the narrative contained the work itself. Breaking Mika’s anonymity in the case of Koizora would ruin both.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Koda Kumi Plurality

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Judging by album sales and general media attention, Koda Kumi is the “biggest” female pop star in Japan at the moment. From the late 1960s onward, this was one of the most astute positions to attain in the entertainment world hierarchy. A couple of months into her Pop Queen reign, a young singer would start to enjoy the rewards — myriad product endorsements, unbridled cultural influence, and eventually, male lust, and a permanent place in the grand narrative of music history. Okinawan dance-pop idol Amuro Namie’s fame in the mid-1990s was not just limited to the world of music; she used the platform of pop to usher in a programme révolutionnaire of chapatsu brown hair and mini-skirts for teenage girls all across Japan.

Since peaking in 1999, however, the Japanese music market has experienced yearly negative growth and a weakened position in the public sphere. Even with the general economic growth of recent years, the music industry (including musical instruments and records) suffered one of the only negative growth rates among consumer product industries in 2006 (according to Nikkei’s Marketing Journal). The only industry performing even less robustly was gofuku (呉服) — traditional Japanese clothing like yukatas and kimonos. Does this mean that J-Pop too is a relic of a previous cultural era? And does it follow that the Pop Princess crown is a meaningless heirloom of a past empire?

The best-sellers of today require only a fraction of sales that the best-sellers of the mid-’90s needed to take the top spot. For example, Koda Kumi’s latest album Black Cherry has sold 998,230 copies (Oricon figure) — making her the #2 best-selling album artist after Mr. Children so far this year. In 1999, this level of sales would have placed her at #23 on the final chart for yearly album sales.

Titles, awards, and public acclaim, however, are all doled out relatively, not absolutely. The biggest stars remain the “biggest stars” — the standards are just lower. And even if the music industry is not performing well sales-wise, the J-Pop idols and singers still contribute a great deal to the entertainment world at large through their appearances as guests and actors on television programs. (A more cynical observer may comment that the Japanese music industry’s main responsibility has always been to produce general “variety television stars” and “disc-shaped fan club goods” rather than “musicians” and “CDs”). So at the end of the day, even if Koda Kumi’s sales are not as impressive as her predecessors, she has still managed to win the implicit title of “Most Important Singer” from the media, and as a result, has received her fill of product endorsement jobs from mobile phones to chu-hai alcoholic beverages. At this point in time, I think it is fair to say that the shrinkage of the music market does not seem to have an impact on general media treatment of its star artists.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the music market is so fractured and fragile that Koda’s journey to Number One did not require the levels of “mass support” previously necessary for the top spot. In a very similar manner, most of the Top Ten Oricon Singles these days are from Johnny’s Jimusho boy bands, who understandably are reliant upon a narrow niche market for their sales. Although currently #1 in a broad sense, there is no real evidence that Koda enjoys support from a wide range of demographic groups and taste segments.

Like Hamasaki Ayumi before her, Koda Kumi fans do not include panting males but are mostly young female admirers. She is most associated with a revealing post-gal fashion look called ero-kawaii (erotic cute) often seen in ViVi, which is understood to be less about male attraction and more about female self-confidence. Overall, Koda Kumi’s fans form a plurality of total consumers rather than a majority, easily giving her the top spot through concentrated action in a sluggish marketplace.

Koda Kumi, however, is not just quietly tolerated by the remaining social majority — she is widely scorned and loathed. Although not an objective indicator, she was voted the #1 “Celebrity I Want to Go Away” on Internet gossip site Tantei File in 2007. Shukan Bunshun included her in a list of recent female celebrities who are not considered attractive by the older generation (“Doko ga ii no?” Imadoki no Bijoron, 8/2/07).

Koda represents a commodity that should be quite common in the near future — the “mass star” who has widespread recognition but only appeals to a specific niche. While the quantity of Koda Kumi’s activities in product promotion are on schedule with her predecessors, the quality of her roles bespeaks a different advertising usage. Her core fans come from a singular taste culture. Therefore she is not used by companies to breed general goodwill for a product but to specifically target a product to her narrow plurality of rabid female fans. This may explain why Koda very prominently works with kimono manufacturer Nishizen Shoji to produce a special line of high-priced Koda Kumi Collection kimonos.

More telling is Koda’s new personal model of Sankyo pachinko machines called “FEVER LIVE IN HALL.” Although Koda Kumi’s public persona generally channels a low culture chic close to the world of pachinko (when her Best Of album hit 1 million sales in late 2005, she rented a small bar in Ginza and became the “mama” for the night in celebration — an act that rooted her even closer to her mizu shobai-esque image),1 Sankyo must be plotting this tie-up to lure in younger female customers.2 More mass-marketed singers may have held reservations about creating brand associations between themselves and what is widely-understood as a gauche and gaudy gambling playtime for a less sophisticated spectrum of society, but this was a good match for Koda Kumi. Those who would be turned off by her pachinko sponsorship aren’t fans anyway.

With no need to impress the masses, Koda Kumi can forgo being bland, un-threatening, or over-trendy like past idols and just constantly re-affirm her personal taste culture to shape herself as a finely-honed marketing weapon. Overall low sales in an important media market can bring the niche star into the limelight  — thus becoming an icon for one specific taste culture, market segment, or demographic group rather than the blunt instrument of the widely-beloved pop stars of yore.


1She also claimed that she would have also liked to have been a bar “mama” in another life.

2The Cohan Research Group in April 2006 reported that:

Women currently form over 20%+ of the total user base. The population of women is higher than men in Japan (65 million women compared to 62 million men in 2005). This offers an opportunity for pachinko operators to increase the participation of women in the game. Furthermore, the average days of participation of female players in the game are 32 days per year, as compared to 45 days per year by male players. The improved public image of pachinko and the availability of exciting new machines provide operators with the opportunity to grow their women customer base. According to Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute Limited, women spend about ¥2,000 more than men per visit to the pachinko parlor.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Coca-Cola Zero Channels Saigo Takamori

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

In the first Japanese television spot for Coca-Cola’s zero-calorie soda Coca-Cola Zero, a bald, middle-aged salaryman sits amongst his fellow coworkers in a large corporate meeting hall. The company president stands on stage and lectures the rank-and-file on something called “Next Cool Biz.” We can only guess that this is the latest stage in the Ministry of the Environment’s Cool Biz campaign to dress-down the workplace in the summer months to reduce excess air conditioning usage. Coke’s cruel parody takes this progressive business casual look to a comical extreme — pants shredded all the way to boxer short length matched with jackets reduced to shoulder pads. In all of their excitement, the Boss and his gushing subordinates do not seem to notice that they have lost all dignity to this beastly new uniform. The audience gasps.

As in the print ads, the protagonist wears the Coca-Cola Zero bottle on the back of his head to form a makeshift samurai chonmage. He stands up, takes a drink from a bottle of Zero and boldly raises his hand to tell the company president from the back of the conference hall, “Sir, I object!” Electric guitars fill the soundtrack, and the evil Boss scowls at our hero.

The slogan for the Zero campaign is “Japanese men! Don’t hesitate!” (日本の男よ, ためらうな。) This commercial chooses to illustrate that slogan by showing a Japanese man taking no hesitation in standing up and calling out the idiocy of the powers that be.

In an earlier post, we discussed the failure of Cool Biz to reach full diffusion due to the importance of apparel-related propriety in organizational relations. Lately, however, Cool Biz has become something of a lightning rod — a symbol for a certain type of unwanted “restructuring” to the classic Japanese workplace culture. In the Coke commercial, Cool Biz has moved past being “a good intention impossible to implement” to become something loathsome in its own right. If I were in the Ministry of the Environment, I would be livid: The commercial has taken the rationality and pro-environmentalism behind Cool Biz and twisted it to such an extreme that the uniform appears to be nothing but a total humiliation upon the individual worker.

While questionable from a pro-environment perspective, the advertisers have very skillfully used the Cool Biz issue as a way to build sympathy with their target audience. Instead of trying to graft the overly-American “individual fights the system” spirit onto a Japanese ad campaign, they have used the Cool Biz backlash to define the conflict so that “rebellion” against the top actually represents a protection of traditional values. The “bad guys” (the executives in silly outfits) advocate an outrageously dumb progressive agenda. Thus opposition to the Next Cool Biz is not insubordination, but merely a cry for the return to the classic black suit-white shirt-black tie uniform.

The Coca-Cola Zero message essentially finds its passion in reactionary zeal. Dressed as a modern day samurai and fighting against the excesses of reform, the protagonist resembles Saigo Takamori — the heroic Japanese soldier who hoped to save the samurai class by leading a rebellion against the Westernizing Meiji government in 1877. In a corporate climate besieged by neo-liberal globalizers and shareholder-right advocates, Japanese salarymen have began to tightly embrace their old corporate traditions as endangered customs. Just as Saigo tried to protect the samurai way of dress against over-eager Westernization, Coke Zero’s salaryman/samurai army clings to their black suits in a similar protest. If one cola will quench male thirst in the struggle against progressive social change, it shall be Coca-Cola Zero.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.