David Blecken
Feb 24, 2017

'Premium Friday' off to an uncertain start in Japan

Government-led initiative to encourage work-life balance (and consumption) has good intentions, but widespread uptake is far from guaranteed.

'Premium Friday' off to an uncertain start in Japan

Today marks the launch of ‘Premium Friday’, a Japanese government initiative to encourage the country’s workers to take a much-needed break. The campaign promotes leaving the office at 3 pm on the last Friday of every month, creating more time for leisure activities such as shopping or travel.

The idea should be a boon for business, and studies by financial institutions such as Mizuho and SMBC have suggested that it could raise consumption by more than US$500 million annually. A study Hakuhodo conducted in October showed 21 percent of respondents see Premium Friday as a chance to shop, while 18 percent see it as a travel enabler. De-stressing was listed as the biggest benefit (38 percent).

A number of brands are running promotions around it. Companies like ANA, East Japan Rail, SoftBank and Amazon are offering incentives either to staff or consumers to encourage spending. Research has indicated that the travel and restaurant sectors are the most likely to benefit: 31.5 percent of respondents to Hakuhodo's study gave travel as their preferred activity on Premium Fridays. This was especially pronounced among women in their 20s to 40s and men in their 20s to 30s.

There is some evidence people are acting on those sentiments. The number of domestic travellers using Airbnb from 24 to 26 February, for instance, has doubled over the same weekend last year, according to the company.

No one told me

However, it’s likely to take time for Japan as a whole to feel any real impact. A major reason is that the early finish is not mandatory. While companies such as Toyota and Morinaga have been reported as offering paid leave on Premium Fridays, reports have suggested that fewer than 5 percent of firms throughout Japan are on board.

Understanding appears limited, with many workers apparently unaware of the campaign or concerned about losing income. Hakuhodo's research showed nearly 63 percent of people knew nothing about the scheme. Research by beverage company Asahi showed that under 40 percent of the public are in favour of the idea, Bloomberg reported.

Kaori Yatsu, head of planning at BBDO Japan, said the concept “sounds nice” but is unrealistic. The government should designate the last Friday of the month as a half-day national holiday, she said.
Domino’s is also sceptical but is turning that doubt to its advantage. The brand has launched ‘Ennui Monday’, a campaign for the majority of people it anticipates will be unable to take ‘Premium Fridays’ off.

“If it’s not an obligation, nothing will change,” said another observer who works in the communications industry. “How many people can really take off at 3 o'clock?”

That is something the advertising industry will need to ask itself as well. Following last year’s events at Dentsu, where an employee was ruled to have committed suicide due to overwork, hope for change in the industry is high. Dentsu has promised to change its working structure to reduce extreme workloads, and other companies in the sector are under pressure to follow.

Hakuhodo, for example, is recommending its staff take early leave today. A spokesperson from Ogilvy said it too is fully supportive of the Premium Friday campaign and sees it as important in fostering greater work-life balance. (In related news, Ogilvy is dealing this week with speculation that overwork contributed to the death of an employee in the Philippines.) 

But as numerous interviews and a discussion hosted by Campaign last year have indicated, agency culture is only half of the equation. For any meaningful improvement to happen, clients must also change their own working practices and reel in the demands they place on their suppliers.

Campaign Japan

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