Japan’s low birth rate has been discussed ad nauseam. But people have been slow to confront the reasons. When they do, they usually cite lifestyle choices or female infertility. Yet male infertility looks to be just as big an issue. In an interview with the Japan Times in May, an expert on the subject, Dr Teruaki Iwamoto, noted that in the 10 percent of married couples that experience infertility in Japan, men and women contribute equally to the problem. World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics confirm that statement.
It’s an awkward subject, and raising awareness of male responsibility has proved difficult. For some however, it represents a business opportunity and the chance to gain exposure by doing social good. Recruit, a diversified company whose interests range from HR to lifestyle products, last September introduced Seem, a home testing kit that aims to help couples recognise if they have a problem, and on a wider societal scale, to open up important conversations and break down taboos.
Seem’s premise is simple. Jiro Hayashi, management partner of Dentsu Y&R's creative division, who led the initial campaign for the product, said the testing kit sector is undeveloped. “There are some testing kits available, but they are difficult to use and not precise enough,” he said. By contrast, Seem uses a microscope lens and a smartphone to check sperm concentration and motility. Users receive their results via an app. Seem launched on a trial basis in September, but marketing efforts only began in earnest in April.
Hayashi acknowledged that the subject’s sensitivity presented a communications challenge. He said the product (which Recruit developed independently of Dentsu Y&R) and the campaign are based on the fact that embarrassment stops men from going to clinics for tests voluntarily, and makes it difficult for their partners to insist. “The first barrier is to get the man involved,” said Michael Atkins, Dentsu Y&R’s executive director. “The idea is to give inclusion to men and have them take that step as a responsible partner.”
Atkins said Dentsu Y&R’s role, after having identified the problems around infertility testing, was to create an emotional connection to the product and lower the barriers to understanding the issue. Much of the campaign’s activities have been PR-driven, with validation from government officials and experts in the field. An important feature is an online film in which a couple who are now expecting a baby give their true account of using the product. A website also provides easily understandable information on the topic and is designed to be updated regularly.
It was important to convey that the test kit is not a solution in itself. “The product is meaningful for couples suffering from infertility, but it’s just a test kit, so you still need to go to the hospital to get the right treatment,” Hayashi explained. “The goal of the communications is to encourage men to go to hospital earlier so they can shorten the time and cost needed for treatment.”
On the other hand, couples may decide not to try to conceive, and that’s also OK. “We are trying to shape a culture where infertility treatment is something couples should talk to each other about,” said Hayashi. “Having a baby is one option, but after having a discussion, they may decide not to.”
The work is in the running for a Cannes Lion. Creativity aside, it appears to have been successful. Seem is reportedly the top-selling healthcare kit on Amazon Japan, and 33 percent of men who used the product opted to visit a fertility clinic based on their results. Hayashi said the campaign is ongoing and will involve regular research to monitor changing attitudes towards infertility treatment to help maintain public focus on the issue and the product.
Update: This campaign subsequently received a Mobile Grand Prix and a bronze Glass Lion at Cannes, marking the first time Japan has won an award in the latter category. The Glass category recognises work that addresses issues relating to gender inequality.