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Mass media not clean in soap-allergy controversy

by Philip Brasor

Two weeks ago, the health ministry announced that at least 471 people have suffered severe allergic reactions related to the use of a facial soap called Cha no Shizuku. Sixty-six of these people have also been hospitalized. In May, Yuuka, the direct sales company that markets the soap, started recalling the product, which first went on sale in 2004. In the months prior to the recall, Yuuka sent letters about the problem to millions of users. One thing about mail order sales is that merchants know exactly who’s buying their stuff.

The name of the soap means “drop of tea,” but the ingredient that caused the problems was derived from wheat. The unpleasant reactions, which include swelling, rashes and difficult breathing, are usually associated with food allergies. It seems the reactions occurred after some users ate wheat products. Researchers determined that repeated use of the soap caused certain people to develop the allergies.

Based on the most recent media reports it sounds as if Yuuka and the health ministry handled the matter responsibly, but problems were already known in October 2009, when a group of doctors contacted the ministry with concerns about the soap. It was another five months before the ministry in turn contacted Yuuka to find out what might be causing the problems, which were being reported with greater frequency. Then in September the ministry began studying 11 of the allergy cases, and a month later, having isolated the suspect ingredient, it sent out a notice to other companies about possible side effects. According to Asahi Shimbun, at least six other firms also used that ingredient.

At about the same time, Yuuka reregistered Cha no Shizuku with a new formulation that did not include the suspect ingredient, saying it was “for safety reasons” but without going into specifics. Some doctors picked up on the ambiguity and wondered why the company did not mention confirmed cases of allergic reactions connected to the soap. More problematic was the health ministry’s response. Though the ministry recognized a cause-and-effect relationship, it refused to go further, saying, “We have to take into consideration public trust in the company.”

Yuuka started selling Cha no Shizuku with the new formulation in December without drawing attention to the fact that it was a new formulation. Over the next four months it sent millions of letters to customers stating that some people had problems with the soap but didn’t say what those problems were. Meanwhile, the health ministry kept receiving more evidence of allergies being caused by the soap, but it wasn’t until May that Yuuka started collecting the old products from individuals and wholesalers, with almost no mention in the media. Moreover, Yuuka’s advertising campaign for Cha no Shizuku had continued without interruption or any significant change in its message.

Direct sales entities such as Yuuka depend heavily on advertising, since they don’t have the point-of-purchase exposure of companies that sell their products through retail outlets. And while Yuuka has used print advertising extensively, it was the TV commercials for Cha no Shizuku that sold the soap. At first glance, they aren’t any different from the usual mail-order cosmetic infomercial: Actress Miki Maya praises the soap for its skin-softening qualities in a relaxed conversational manner, with cutaways showing her washing her face. At the end of the commercial, she turns to the camera and says, “Akiramenai de!” (“Don’t give up”). This line, delivered with theatrical conviction, has become the source of jokes on variety shows, a sure sign that the phrase is embedded in the culture. Whenever anyone says “Akiramenai de,” it triggers images of Miki Maya and Cha no Shizuku — exactly the kind of thing advertising strives for.

A veteran of the all-female Takarazuka stage musical company, Maya has developed a lucrative career as a CM star. Advertisers hire Takarazuka actresses because they come with a nationwide female fan base, which is why they are used for cosmetics and household goods. Unlike Takarazuka vets Yuki Amami and Hitomi Kuroki, who appear in commercials for major corporations, Maya has cultivated a more down-to-earth image, shilling for anything from instant ramen to vegetable juices promising satisfying bowel movements, and always with a touch of self-effacing humor.

What’s different about the Yuuka ads is that they include a disclaimer saying the impressions being presented are those of the person stating them, and other users may not enjoy the same results. Thus Maya’s participation becomes a personal endorsement of the product, something that Japanese advertisers, with their heavy reliance on celebrities, are usually careful to avoid. Truth-in-advertising is not as strict a concept in Japan as it is in the West, and most viewers here won’t necessarily believe that the stars they see on TV use the products they are selling, since in most cases they are obviously acting. But Maya implies she does.

Her commercials are seen as one of the main reasons for Cha no Shizuku’s success, which is saying a lot when you take in the fact that Yuuka has sold almost 47 million bars. Does that make Maya liable? We’ll soon know. The National Consumer Affairs Center has received more than 900 complaints about the soap, and a group of attorneys is soliciting affected users for a lawsuit, though you wouldn’t know about it from watching TV.

That’s because the mass media are complicit, having avoided the issue out of deference to a valued advertiser until it became too big to ignore. Normally in such cases, the media howl for company executives to apologize, but the only people calling for repentance are consumers on the Internet. As one joker said on Twitter to those thinking of seeking damages from Yuuka, “Akiramenai de!”