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Failed chemistry experiments in the media lab

by Philip Brasor

Two weeks ago, a friend faxed me an article from the weekly news magazine Aera about a new advertising trend called “collaboration CF,” which is the selling of two different companies’ products in one TV commercial. I had already read about collaborations two days earlier in advertising critic Yukichi Amano’s column in the Asahi Shimbun.

Amano had described the same commercial covered in the Aera article and went on to explain that the appeal of collaborations is obvious since “as viewers, we tend to notice things in a commercial other than the product being sold.” What makes collaborations new is that these other things are now meant to be noticed.

The commercial in question is for Suntory’s new canned coffee, Boss HG. It is the latest in a series of spots featuring actor Masatoshi Nagase as a salaryman being chased by a mysterious figure in leather, played by guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei. In the collaboration spot, Nagase is in a dark place hiding from Hotei. He pushes a flashing red button and is catapulted onto a stage where the J-Pop group Chemistry is singing their latest single “You Go Your Way.” Chemistry is the other “product” being advertised here.

Music has always played an important role in commercials, and in Japan the use of songs in TV spots is often more advantageous for the musician than it is for the product. About 10 years ago, soprano Kathleen Battle became an everlasting superstar in Japan after she appeared in a CM for Nikka Whiskey singing “Ombra Mai Fu.” That, however, doesn’t count as a collaboration.

A collaboration apparently requires two versions of the same commercial. In this case, one ends with a picture of a can of Boss coffee, and the other with a superimposition announcing the release of Chemistry’s new album. The Aera article says that the “multiple effectiveness” of the Boss/Chemistry spot derives from the combination of the two products, but actually it derives from the combination of Nagase, Hotei and the pursuit story line.

Taku Tada, the CM planner who came up with the campaign, still has no idea why Hotei is chasing Nagase, but he imagines he can adapt the story to accommodate any advertiser who wants to hook up for the series. This past week the matter became considerably complicated with the premiere of a new CM for the satellite broadcaster Sky PerfecTV. It is the latest in a series of commercials that has been running for several months featuring SMAP’s Masahiro Nakai, who has been placed, lab rat-style, in a box in front of a TV set so that his viewing habits can be observed by a group of giant behavioral psychologists.

In the new spot, Nagase and Hotei are literally dumped into the box alongside Nakai. Again, there are two versions: one that ends with a super of Sky PerfecTV and another that ends with one of Boss.

In Japan, it’s not uncommon to see the same star appearing in various commercials for different products, and, in fact, stars will sometimes carry a theme from one campaign over to another. For a while now, actor Masakazu Tamura has been appearing in ads for NTT DoCoMo cell phones that offer i-mode connections to the Internet, where, he informs us, you can do your shopping.

In a new series for Lawson, Tamura comes into a convenience store to pick up some books he ordered on his cell phone from Lawson’s Web site. According to Telepal Magazine, this is not a collaboration but a “tieup.”

The problem with all this synergy is that it sometimes ignores the way the viewer processes information. If the main purpose of these commercials is to make a strong impression, then they are succeeding. If the purpose is to isolate a particular product in the viewer’s consciousness, then I think they’re not.

Though I’ve seen the Boss/Chemistry commercial many times, it wasn’t until the page from Aera dropped out of my fax machine that I remembered that Boss is not the first canned coffee Nagase has sold. He was featured in the commercials for Kirin’s new canned coffee Fire when it was introduced a couple of years ago. In that series he was not a salaryman but a back-to-nature type who rode horses through the canyons of the American Southwest and communed at campfires with Native Americans. Still, canned coffee is canned coffee, and it’s understandable if a viewer subconsciously connects Nagase with Kirin’s Fire.

Kirin is now using Takuya Kimura in its Fire commercials, and they don’t make as much of an impression as the old Fire spots with Nagase, or the new Boss spots, for that matter. Like Nagase (and Nakai and Tamura and . . .), Kimura is shilling for a number of companies simultaneously, including a beauty clinic and something to do with telecommunications.

If I can’t remember the names, it may be because the best Kimura commercial is the one for Fujitsu’s FM-V computer, which is very funny. Whenever I see Kimura in a commercial — any commercial — I tend to think of Fujitsu. Advertisers like to use topical celebrities because they think it makes their products topical as well, but an unforeseen consequence is that the viewer may confuse all the advertisers connected to a particular celebrity. It’s difficult to identify one product when the celebrity selling it is being identified with so many other products.

Thus, the use of the Nagase-Hotei team for multiple products may turn out to be more beneficial to Nagase and Hotei as media personalities than to the advertisers they are serving. Or maybe not.

Nagase’s wife, idol Kyoko Koizumi, was at one point in the mid-’90s appearing in 10 different ad campaigns. She now appears in none. One man’s “multiple effectiveness” is another man’s “overkill.”