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Amano: tracing Japan's arc through its ads

Yukichi Amano, who died on Oct. 20 at the age of 80, was a true critic. Though his field of expertise was advertising, he used his weekly CM Tenkizu (TV Commercial Weather Chart) columns in the Asahi Shimbun to comment on popular culture in general, and frequently provided other media outlets with his personal take on social trends.

But unlike most Japanese writers who forge livings as hyōronka (critics), he never made pronouncements. His style was more avuncular than professorial: flip, sardonic, but never cynical. His job was to dig out the pebble of truth that public language paved over.

The first interview I ever did for publication was with Amano, in the cramped, cluttered office of Kokoku Hihyo (Advertising Review), the magazine he founded in 1979. Though I had my own theories about Japanese advertising, especially its emphasis on brand recognition, I didn’t understand the logic behind certain campaigns, and was confounded by the over-use of certain talent, which didn’t jibe with what I thought was effective promotion. If a company’s aim was to distinguish its brand from the next company’s, why should it hire the same actor to appear in its TV commercials? I mentioned Kyoko Koizumi, who at the time was appearing in 10 campaigns, all for different products.

Amano said I was basically right: From an advertising standpoint it was not effective for a company to use the same well-known entertainer that nine other companies were using, because whichever ad featuring Koizumi had the biggest impact on viewers would simply benefit from all the others featuring her. When people see those other ads they’ll be reminded of the one they like best. It was not a sound strategy, he agreed, but that doesn’t mean the commercials themselves were “bad.” The most vital attribute of an ad is “freshness,” he said, which is why so many companies use the same talent. If that talent is new and exciting, everyone wants a piece of her.

Amano’s underlying point, which I didn’t appreciate until later, is that the effectiveness of an ad is beside the point. He did not review commercials with the aim of critiquing their ability to sell products or services. Advertising is a creative endeavor, but unlike nominally artistic pursuits, such as painting or literature, it is first and foremost utilitarian, and critiquing the utilitarian component of advertising — its ability to sell — was pointless, because results could be numerically confirmed. What captivated him was the cultural meaning of an ad — how it reflected social attitudes at that particular time.

He didn’t formulate his ideas from academic models. Amano was a college dropout. He grew up in the blue-collar Shitamachi area of Tokyo, and as a child before the war often spent time in the entertainment district of Asakusa. At 14 he was evacuated to Shikoku, and when he returned to Tokyo as a young man the first thing he wanted to do, he once told NHK, was visit an Asakusa strip club.

Though part of the reason was certainly titillation, he was mainly drawn to the special form of social interaction that prevailed there. Asakusa was a commercial district that used entertainment as its sales point — even the fruit vendors were comedians. He once talked about the time he was in a burlesque house and a stripper was getting elaborate with her dance routine, which bothered some patrons. They were impatient to see some skin, and one man finally yelled out, “Get serious!” The house exploded in laughter. It was Amano’s first realization of the power of positive criticism. It didn’t matter that it came in the form of heckling.

Amano’s reviews were easy to read and had the feel of being dashed off, but he reportedly spent a great deal of time on them. What allowed him to become a true critic in a literary culture where the term tends to be a synonym for pundit or PR flack was his choice of subject. He once said he was the only advertising critic in the world, which is not true but pointed up the peculiarity of his position. Because advertising is not something that has to be sold to the masses, like movies or books, there were no commercial sensibilities to offend. “You turn on the TV and all you see is ads,” Amano once said. “For better or worse they have an influence on society, and if they’re bad, I should point that out.”

To him “bad” didn’t mean misleading or ineffective. It meant bad, as in “not good.” He said art “is all about lying,” but good art necessarily reveals some truth. Advertising is no different. If an ad makes an exaggerated claim but does so in a clever or enlightening way, the viewer gains something while knowing that the claim is an exaggeration. What’s “bad” is purposefully trying to fool people into believing a lie, and those ads usually tip their hand by not being interesting in the first place.

Amano’s development as a critic coincided with the 1980s bubble era, when consumption was king and advertising the ascendant public art. By the end of the decade advertisers weren’t trying to sell you a product so much as showing you what life was about.

Amano stopped publishing Kokoku Hihyo in 2009, acknowledging the reality that advertising in the Internet age was a different animal than the one he started stalking in 1979. He had already forged a reputation as one of the few liberal commentators acceptable to the mainstream media. The artist Mitsuo Anno, writing about his friend in Tokyo Shimbun, mentioned his “laid-back approach.” Amano’s unthreatening style wasn’t always effective in selling his personal views, but maybe that’s because it was difficult to hear him over the contentious din that characterizes media discourse these days.

Like many intellectuals who came of age during the war, he didn’t trust those political forces who wanted to make Japan a “strong country” again. Such people wanted to overcome their “feeling of inferiority,” he wrote earlier this year. Common sense and “cleverness” were better qualities to aspire to. Spoken like a true child of Shitamachi.

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