Anyone who reads this column regularly probably believes that I find Japanese television completely worthless. It’s not true; or, at least, not completely true. I think Japanese TV commercials are very good and often more representative of the hopes and dreams of the nation than the programming is.
However, I never thought that Japanese TV commercials were superior in quality to their foreign counterparts until I browsed the CD-ROM that came with the November issue of Kokoku Hihyo (Advertising Review). The disc contains 64 award-winning commercials from all over the world, and though they’re clever and well-made, they don’t display the ingenious blend of purpose and impact that the best Japanese CMs do.
For one thing, many of the spots on the CD-ROM are 60 seconds, whereas Japanese CMs rarely last more than 30 and are usually only 15. Whatever your thoughts are on the world’s ever-diminishing attention span, the 60-second format requires a visual and narrative approach that draws more attention to the commercial itself than it does to the thing being advertised. Many of these spots are jokes, with the products or services functioning as punch lines. A typical example is an HJ Heinz CM made for English television, in which a rescue team comes upon an isolated ice station where all the inhabitants have starved to death despite the fact that the food lockers are full. In the last scene, we find out why: They ran out of ketchup.
The Heinz CM uses self-effacing irony as its hook (i.e., our senses are so degraded that we can’t taste anything unless it has condiments slathered all over it), but once you get the point of the CM you’re through with it. I can see why these spots won awards, but I have no desire to see them again.
The point of Kokoku Hihyo’s “Ten Best TV CMs of 2003,” eight of which are Japanese, is not so much that the commercials cited are innovative or technically impressive, but that they invite repeat viewings, which is what ads should do. With the shorter format comes a sharper focus on impact.
The impact in foreign CMs is mostly made through humor and ironic logic; and while Japanese CMs also have humor and irony, the main impact is made through movement and speed. The No. 1 CM of 2003, selected by the editors of KH and some advertising students, is for Suntory’s Nenshokei Amino-shiki soft drink. Each spot features an amazing acrobatic feat performed in an everyday setting — a junior high-school girl doing flips on a train platform, a salaryman climbing a flagpole upside-down, a bunch of students stacked in a pyramid skipping rope. The media people invited to comment on the magazine’s top 10 in the December issue admit they thought the feats were computer-generated, but they’re not.
The catchy, childish song that accompanies the CM is central to the impact. A similar sort of appeal gained the Korean liquor Jinro the No. 5 slot on the list. Average folks are seen dancing in a semichoreographed chorus line to a simple beat at an office or a house party. The dancing is amateurish but heartfelt. The media commentators were quick to point out how much different the Jinro ad was in terms of production value from the Gap ad featuring Madonna and Missy Elliott (No. 4). Both make an impact with movement and music, but at opposite ends of the technique spectrum.
Even when the impact is humorous, Japanese CMs don’t necessarily wait for the viewer to get the joke, and therefore people want to see them again. Household products manufacturer Kincho, which deserves its own hall of fame for the CMs it’s made over the past few decades, scored two top-10 winners. In one CM (No. 3) inspired by the minimalist cinematic style of Yasujiro Ozu, actor Hideji Otaki, famous for playing grumpy old men, listens to a younger man explain why the bug spray he’s holding does not hurt the environment and suddenly bellows “Tsumaranai! (Boring!)” In a spot for a Kincho room deodorizer (No. 9), two Japanese housewives converse in atrocious French.
Even when there’s more of a narrative, it’s usually so fast you can’t process it completely. In a 15-second spot for Coca-Cola (No. 7), a teacher, dressed as a stereotypical juvenile delinquent, berates his junior high-school class for not being able to read some extremely rare Chinese characters. One can laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation without really understanding it. Several commentators said they thought the Marudai Ham CM (No. 6) took advantage of viewers’ recent familiarity with North Korean mass demonstrations: A group of kindergarten girls perform a dance about ham for the amusement of the product’s spokesman.
The commentators point out that Japanese advertisers are moving away from a complete reliance on celebrities. Though famous people are still used widely in Japanese ads, they are less important than the theme. The only top-10 winner that is “about” a celebrity is the one for Kirin’s Gogo no Kocha bottled tea (No. 10), in which teen idol Ayaya performs a scatlike song that plays on her cute image. But it also carries a subtext for older viewers, since it’s a ripoff of a 1970s Suntory whiskey CM featuring the late Sammy Davis, Jr.
Kokoku Hihyo doesn’t address truth-in-advertising (the Suntory ad implies that drinking Amino-shiki will “burn off” fat), but they also don’t make claims about “art,” as do the more famous international CM awards, like the Clios and Cannes. There’s something vaguely oxymoronic about calling TV commercials “art.” KH approaches them as entertainment, which, considering the on-air competition, makes more sense.