National / Media | MEDIA MIX

You'd have to be drunk to be fooled by Japan's booze commercials

A few weeks ago the Asahi Shimbun printed a letter from a 59-year-old man who complained about a TV commercial for Kirin’s Tanrei, one of those beerlike beverages known as happoshu. In the spot, world-famous alpinist Ken Noguchi is seen climbing a mountain, the Gipsy Kings howling away on the soundtrack. At the end of the commercial he’s drinking Tanrei with his fellow climbers, obviously in celebration of reaching the summit, and the letter writer wondered if it was really such a good idea to get a buzz on before descending.

It’s not the first complaint I’ve read about the cavalier way alcohol is advertised. Usually, it has to do with making liquor look like something other than liquor. Sweet drinks like umeshu (plum wine) and fruit-flavored chuhai are pitched at young impressionable women, and recently Asahi came out with a tomato cocktail that is advertised as if it were sparkling tomato juice.

But it’s probably safe to say that people who buy these drinks know exactly what they’re getting, and anyone stupid enough to climb down a mountain in a state of inebriation can’t blame anyone but themselves if something bad happens as a result.

What’s always been striking about alcohol ads in Japan is how unambiguous they are about the real purpose of the products they sell. When I was growing up in America, there was a gentlemen’s agreement among distillers not to advertise hard liquor on TV, and even with beer and wine commercials there was an unspoken rule that said you couldn’t actually show someone imbibing. On Japanese CMs, however, people invariably gulp beer as if they’ve just crawled out of a burning desert, and whiskey and nihonshu (rice wine) not only show people sipping the stuff, but looking pleasantly soused as they do it.

Right now, there aren’t too many commercials for regular beer. It’s mostly either happoshu or so-called premium beer, meaning a slightly more expensive version of the usual brew that presumably tastes better. The commercials for premium beers have a more sophisticated air about them. Asahi’s features Oscar-nominated actor Ken Watanabe, while Suntory’s has veteran rocker Eikichi Yazawa, both successful, middle-aged men who still look pretty good, meaning no beer guts. Happosho ads, on the other hand, tend to be coarse and loud and feature comedians who are famous for looking like the rest of us. And rather than highlight the quality, happoshu is promoted for its drinkability. That’s where the gulping comes in.

There’s another thing that distinguishes the two types of ads. Most premium beer ads seem to be set in the early evening or at night, while happoshu CMs are mainly shot in the harsh light of day. Beer is something you unwind with, while happoshu is for killing a Sunday afternoon. Ads for Asahi’s Blue Honnama happoshu show a young man washing his dog on a sunny summer day. Suntory’s Jokki Nama has comedian Joji Tokoro finishing off a king-size can on the beach under a blinding sun.

Because it’s much cheaper than beer, happoshu has mainly targeted men who just like to drink, but that tack seems to be changing. In the clever ads for Asahi’s Ajiwai, a “new genre” of malt liquor, a young husband is shown folding the laundry in the middle of the day when he spies his wife out on the veranda drinking from a can. He drops what he’s doing and joins her. Another Asahi product, the curiously named Style Free, follows a similar line with a young couple enjoying a brew together on their own sun-drenched veranda. They aren’t rich but they’re happy because their life is free of “surplus things.”

Style Free is one of the newer “zero carbohydrate” brews that are supposed to be good for you. Aside from all the health issues associated with alcohol, beer and beerlike beverages are notably high in calories, and what has mostly deterred women from drinking them is the threat of a ballooning waistline. As far back as 2000, lower-calorie happoshu was being marketed as “diet” food. Suntory even has a brew called Diet.

With heightened media coverage of metabolic syndrome, or “metabo,” even the average male beer drinker may be more reluctant to romance the six-pack. Ad campaigns for “zero” brews attempt to reassure suds lovers that they can still drink their fill. Suntory’s commercials for Zero-Nama are the most blatant. Actor Hiroshi Fujioka is shown sitting in a crowded izakaya (Japanese pub) with a worried look on his face. On the counter in front of him is an empty glass that once held beer and an empty plate that once held food. When the cook asks him what he wants, he stands up abruptly and grabs him by the collar, growling desperately, “More kushikatsu!”

Kushikatsu is deep fried breaded meat on a stick. You can practically get metabo just looking at it, but the CM implies you can eat as much as you want because the happoshu you wash it down with isn’t going to compound the problem with lots of carbs.

It’s an odd way to sell an alcoholic beverage when you think about it: The brew itself is not promoted for its taste or even its drinkability (i.e., its capacity to get you loaded). It’s being sold as a kind of dietary aid. The ad takes for granted that Fujioka wants to drink more, and that his main worry is over calories, not alcohol. The only thing you can say about this questionable premise is at least he’s not on the top of a mountain.

In that light, the only happoshu ad I find totally honest is the one for Kirin’s Tanrei Green Label, which features comedian Ken Shimura and half-a-dozen Western-looking young men out in a grassy field jumping around and pulling weird faces. These guys are either already drunk or under the influence of a condition that proper standards of sensitive journalism prohibit me from describing. Either way, they look happy.

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