Dear Alice,

It seems like every time I pass through a major station in Tokyo there is someone handing out free packets of pocket tissues with an advertising insert. Is this form of marketing unique to Japan? I’ve never seen it in any other country. What really puzzles me is that sometimes the person handing out the tissues seems to be giving them only to certain people. Just the other day, in Shibuya, a tissue guy didn’t offer me one of his packs, and when I put out my hand to ask, he actually refused! What the heck is that? Was he discriminating against me because I’m foreign and he assumed I can’t read his advertisement?

Jacqueline D., Tokyo

Dear Jacqueline,

Four billion packets of free tissues are distributed every year in Japan, a large proportion of which end up in my apartment. I just went through the places they collect, including a kitchen drawer and a basket just inside our entranceway, and found give-away tissues from travel agencies, consumer finance companies, fitness clubs, optical chains, banks and a fair number of drinking establishments. The most interesting find, if I exclude the one with an offer for a “massage” by a beautiful foreign blonde, was a pack with recruiting information for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

Why would such a range of organizations use tissues to promote their message? Because, in Japan, tissue-marketing is a proven and inexpensive way to advertise. For a cost of as little as ¥10 to ¥25 you can get your message directly into the hands of potential customers. What’s more, consumers who accept the tissues are likely to actually read your advertisement. If you’re lucky, they’ll look it over several times before the tissues are used up.

In a recent Internet survey of over 100,000 Japanese consumers conducted by Marsh Research, 76 percent said they accept free tissues. (That’s a much higher acceptance rate than for leaflets.) When asked if they look at the advertisement accompanying the tissues, slightly more than half said they either “definitely look” or “at least glance at” the advertisement. When asked why, many respondents said they hoped to find a coupon or special offer. Yet others displayed a very Japanese sense of obligation for having received a gift, giving answers like “sekkaku kubatte kuretakara (because they were so kind to have given me something)” and “yappari moratta ijo minai to shitsurei ni naru ka na to omo tame (given that I accepted them, I figure it would be rude not to look).”

As you surmised, the concept of tissue-pack marketing was indeed developed in Japan. It dates back to the late 1960s, when Hiroshi Mori, the founder of a paper-goods manufacturer in Kochi Prefecture called Meisei Industrial Co., was sniffing around for ways to expand demand for paper products. At the time, the most common marketing freebie in Japan was boxes of matches, often given away by banks and used primarily by women in the kitchen.

Figuring tissues would have wider appeal (because everyone has to blow their nose, and carry insurance against public toilets with no tissues), Mori developed the machinery to fold and package tissues into easy-to-carry pocket-size packs. The new product was marketed only as a form of advertising and wasn’t sold to consumers. Even now, pocket tissues hardly exist as a retail category in Japan because everyone expects to receive them for free.

Japan is still the main market for tissue-pack advertising, but the practice is beginning to spread overseas. A subsidiary of Japanese trading giant Itochu International, Adpackusa.com, introduced tissue marketing in New York in 2005 and now offers it throughout the United States.

“Our first clients were Japanese companies, who were already familiar with the concept, but as awareness of the medium increased, U.S. companies began to adopt tissues as a way to promote their brands,” says Adpack’s Hiroyuki Fukui. Clients include Commerce Bank, PNC Bank, H.R. Block, Kaiser Permanente and Zagat.

As for that snub you suffered in Shibuya, my guess is you were refused not because you’re foreign but because you’re female. Tissues handed out by men are often advertising what I’ll delicately describe as “male-oriented services.” Mr. Shibuya may have assumed you’d be uninterested, or worse, offended. Or he may have been acting under explicit instructions not to give his goodies to women and “save” his supply for men.

It’s quite common to target a certain demographic; a company advertising a beauty product, for example, will ask distribution staff to favor women in their 20s when passing out the tissues. At Kyoto-based advertising agency Takami Corporation, more than half of tissue-marketing clients request targeted distribution, according to Internet sales manager Natsuki Kobayashi. But such requests are tricky.

“People like to receive free tissues, and passersby outside of the targeted group may ask for a pack,” Kobayashi allowed. “Refusing might create bad feelings and hurt the advertiser’s image, so we instruct our workers to give them to anyone who asks.”

Unfortunately for those of us who count on a steady supply of free nose-wipes, the tissue-marketing industry is suffering a slump along with its biggest users, major consumer loan companies such as Promise Co. and Takefuji Corporation. With advertisers cutting back, some tissue-pack suppliers are reporting a 20 to 25 percent drop in orders. Even so, the industry in Japan alone is still generating something in the range of ¥75 billion in sales. And that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.

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