“Yappari hade ja nai”

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.

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6 Responses to ““Yappari hade ja nai””

  1. nate Says:

    The vested TV interests are evidently frighteningly powerful. The rights protection regime that come riding on the back of Japanese terrestrial digital is painfully restrictive. There are even options in place to prevent recording of an analog signal (ie, using a vcr) should your broadcaster decide that’s in their best interests.
    More painful is the refusal to license any computer equipment designed to receive the encrypted signal for fear of piracy. Considering that most of the next/current gen TVs cost considerably more than a capable computer AND monitor of reasonable size (notably capable of higher-than-HD resolutions), it’s a quite a stab in the consumers back to force them to use more expensive, crippled, inferior technology to partake of a medium that has been free since its inception.
    With government policies like these, don’t expect people to be leaping onto the internet with any urgency.

  2. adamu Says:

    I dont have a biting commentary on the Japanese media establishment but I have to tell you – its not just Lost! Law and Order SVU runs the same commercial and I have it down almost as well as you do (and it has become a running gag with Mrs. Adamu as well).

    I have to wonder if MC actually did research to find that that sort of jazz concert fantasy actually made for a plausible “priceless” experience in Japan. It just seems like an overly complicated rube goldberg invention of a touching moment. Am I wrong to remember the ones in the US making at leasta little bit of sense? Each time I see the commercial it is a mystery.

  3. 7374e9 Says:

    Your essay falls a little short of making an impact as analysis (which what I’d expect on this blog?).

    First you admit that you don’t have the statistics.

    Second your example really draws on experiences of a small niche cable tv consumer (you, adamu,…who else?): those who watch american tv dramas. How many Japanese are actually interested in watching them?

    Then you branch off into a gratuitous lyricism: “This commercial has somehow become a part of my life.” Eh, I’m sorry, it’s a little jarring in a professional analysis essay.

    Finally aren’t you confusing cause and effect? “The perceived value of cable TV programming content could hinge on the quality of commercials provided”. Doesn’t high value of programming attract high quality commercials? Assuming that your valuation of this particular MC commercial as low quality is accurate, what else would you expect to accompany last,law-order and the like? with a minor proportion of the nation interested in watching them?

  4. W. David Marx Says:

    Your essay falls a little short of making an impact as analysis

    I think this is fair. I had been thinking about using this as an example to talk about cable TV in Japan and expectations for commercial diversity, but those aren’t really big conclusions to make. Instead of killing the essay though, I hoped it would lead to some discussion.

    First you admit that you don’t have the statistics.

    I think exact stats are not necessary to make the point that cable TV has little penetration or influence in Japan. The fact that no one has a definite figure for penetration suggests that no one even cares enough to make a good measure. In the OECD report for 2005, lots of stats were empty for Japan.

    How many Japanese are actually interested in watching them?

    Judging by the empty boxes at Tsutaya and other rental chains, lots. FOX and AXN show extremely popular shows like Prison Break, 24, and Lost. These have huge fanbases in Japan.

    Doesn’t high value of programming attract high quality commercials?

    If you take into consideration that Lost is extremely popular on the DVD market, it makes sense that the programs themselves are not the problem for attracting an audience.

  5. 7374e9 Says:

    Ok, fair enough, let’s say lost etc. are popular (you have a better handle to judge that). Now if we take the causal chain in the last paragraph of your essay at face value we would conclude that since commercials accompanying those shows are poor quality then the shows would have also be low quality / unpopular. This is a contradiction.

    It’s more likely to be the other way around: high quality / popular programming attracts high quality / diverse advertising. Isn’t it trivial? Or am I missing something? Why would you say the opposite? and you affirm this yourself in case of Animax, popular anime -> diverse ads.

    But if I am right, then there is the puzzle of the MC commercial. I guess the problem as you state it is that the commercial predominates. Why? You suggest that that is so because of uncompetitiveness of the media space on this channel. So the advertisers must think it not worth paying money to be present amongst american shows. Does this have something to do with show being american / eg powerfully affirming western values? People may like watching them but manufacturers can’t quite align their products to go with imagery induced by those american shows? And so the MC the global credit company is the only one that naturally fits.

  6. 7374e9 Says:

    In fact the MC commercial is placed and executed perfectly. The main MC message: american shows->america is the land of possibilities->everything’s possible with MC; to get the viewers hooked: american shows->america->new york->have fun->jazz clubs in new york. (New york here is the crucial link; from my first circle of Japanese friends and their friends I am pretty confident that this link is a powerful cultural imprint in how Japanese read US and NY).