There are over 10 seismic tremors a day in Japan, and coping with them is a centuries-old way of life here. But when ‘The Big One’ hits—as it did on April 14 this year and even more powerfully two days later in the southern prefecture of Kumamoto—residents are still caught unawares and lives are lost, shortened or severely disrupted. Within minutes, what were peaceful communities or vibrant cities become danger zones and images of destruction and human suffering fill the airwaves. As news reports repeat the mounting death toll and the number of displaced evacuees, should brands stop their advertising out of respect?
The accepted norm is yes—cancelling product launch events and pulling television commercials and replacing them with public service ads is common practice, as was the case last month after Kumamoto and other big disasters before it, such as the 2011 quake in Tohoku.
The Tohoku earthquake, which was felt strongly in Tokyo, where the largest concentration of Japanese consumers live, prompted all five national television networks to replace regular commercials with public service ads—up to 85 per cent of them on some days.
According to Nikkei Business magazine, which examined the number of companies that chose to ‘jishuku’, or self-censor, their advertising after Tohoku and compared that to those which did post-Kumamoto, the number appears to be far less this time, even taking into account the difference in scale and severity of the two incidents.
The biggest change was, according to the Nikkei, in the regions where brands chose to jishuku. While after Tohoku most scrapped their ads nationally, this time many limited their censorship to the networks in the seven southern prefectures in Kyushu, where Kumamoto lies. The reason some gave was not so much respect for the victims but that with so many consumers affected by the quake and not able to shop normally—and companies also unable to deliver their products—it did not make sense to advertise in those areas.
That is a reasonable enough assumption, and a departure from the broad and imprecise “disrespect” criteria for jishuku which can baffle many foreign, and even domestic brands. But many brands, from household product companies to carmakers, still appear to take the knee-jerk reaction to make themselves invisible for fear of offending.
Yet as disaster victims and regular viewers alike comment freely and in real-time about advertisements or the lack there of, brands could be hit by an unexpected boomerang attack of criticism of their actions. J-cast News, reporting on Twitter comments after the Kumamoto quake, pointed to tweets lamenting the disappearance of TV ads: “This is exactly the time we shouldn’t let up on economic activities so we can support the affected regions!” and “The public service ads take me back to (the Tohoku quake) five years ago: it’s a reminder and is frankly depressing.”
So, jishuku or no jishuku, how can brands stay authentic in quake-prone Japan? One choice is to stop advertising but to continue to communicate—through content designed to inform, inspire and assist, and that asks for nothing in return. Continuing to advertise after ensuring there are no insensitivities towards the victims in the ad is another.
Adopting a 360-degree view of what is expected, socially, ethically and also from a corporate social responsibility standpoint, from all stakeholders, not only consumers, is the first step. Preparing a well-thought-out plan to deploy resources in the most efficient manner to help employees, the communities in which they operate, shareholders, rescue crews and victims will ultimately also benefit the brand.