Japanese consumers are not known for being vociferous. In contrast to markets like China, where brands sometimes become targets of physical violence for getting their messaging wrong, disdain in Japan has traditionally been silent: if people don’t like a brand or product, they simply don’t buy or talk about it—at least not openly.
That is changing. A glance back over the past 12 months shows advertiser insensitivity frequently prompting a very vocal response indeed. Sometimes the advertiser is not really a brand at all and would probably pass unnoticed if not for the controversy. A recent example that made headlines was a tourism promotion for Miyagi Prefecture featuring an erotic actress. Saturated with verbal and visual innuendo, the ad drew hundreds of complaints and was eventually pulled.
Last year’s ‘Unagi girl’, another decidedly odd film that tried to promote the eel-farming city of Shibushi, suffered a similar fate. Viewers saw the portrayal of a high school swimmer who turns into an eel and is eaten as sexist and even endorsing kidnapping.
The small-town bureaucrats behind this sort of work make an easy target. But big brands are increasingly drawing ire too. Suntory has been especially unfortunate. In April, a campaign for its Kyogetsu shochu drink was seen as resembling an affair between a woman and her boss, although no man featured in any of the spots.
The company didn’t seem to learn its lesson, and in July pulled another campaign after a day following a stream of criticism. The beer commercial depicted young women as suggestive drinking partners for businessmen, and was denounced for its apparent sexism.
This followed a similarly short-lived promotion by HIS Travel last year that tried to entice male travellers by offering the chance to sit next to female university students on their flights. The list goes on.
Overt sexism is not the only thing that makes people lose their cool. Some cases of social media outrage are just silly. An ad for Mitsuya Cider caused a stir in April because it showed two women surprising a friend from behind while she played the trumpet. Viewers were concerned that she could have broken her teeth.
But the heaviest criticism tends to be valid. A short film for Cow Soap released in June sparked a wave of condemnation for suggesting it’s OK for a father to prioritise work-related drinking over his child’s birthday celebration.
A few years ago, scenarios like these might have raised an eyebrow, but would have been unlikely to provoke a serious backlash. The reaction points to a generational shift that marketers need to pay close attention to.
Most examples were clearly skewed towards the middle-aged, male segment, and those consumers are unlikely to have led the charge against them. Many of those up in arms on social media are relatively young, and despite considerable spending power, famously reluctant to open their wallets. They may well have no stake in the brand at all: many are unlikely to drink a regular lager, for example. But strongly held values mean they are quick to jump on any advertiser when it slips up.
Brands are having to tailor their approach to suit people who don’t actually buy their products, says Abi Sekimitsu, content director at Ogilvy & Mather and MD of Ogilvy PR in Japan. “Young people don’t spend but have the power to scare corporations into changing their strategy,” she says.
It would be wrong to simply dismiss complainants as prudish or lacking humour. To Ross Rowbury, president and CEO of Edelman Japan, the reaction to almost all recent examples is indicative of “Japan learning to embrace diversity” and changing gender roles. Certain stereotypes that were once the norm are no longer acceptable as a means of selling products, he says.
People are also seeking different lifestyles to their parents. The Cow ad met with hostility because it represented a way of life that is at odds with millennial values such as work-life balance. A recent study by the Japan Productivity Center, for example, found that the inclination of young company employees to work late and even to socialise with colleagues at all is at an all-time low.
Thanks to the rise of international social media platforms and increased international exposure, millennials are not afraid to express their opinions on such topics openly, Rowbury notes.
For traditional companies with advertising and marketing departments largely staffed with ‘traditional’ employees, this poses a challenge. To avoid future mishaps, Rowbury says they need to broaden their outlook to take into account not just the target consumer in isolation, but in the context of a changing society. The brands that have recently come under fire probably did nothing wrong based on research into the target audience, "but the needle of society had moved and it was no longer appropriate,” he says. “It will continue to move at an accelerated pace, so companies need to keep one eye very much on the societal changes that are going on.”
More diversity of age and gender on both agency and client sides would also go a long way. Sexist ads are much less likely to see the light of day with a balance of men and women involved in the process, and a mixture of generations on mainstream projects can help ensure the work reflects reality and is in touch with current sentiment.