I make it a point to regularly watch Japanese digital and broadcast advertisements, but there are still times after all these years where commercials come completely out of left field, and I can only sit there in awe wondering, “Who came up with that? Did that really just happen?”
When I visit the US I’m always a bit surprised watching regular cable TV because the commercial breaks are so incredibly different. US commercials tend to use a short story format that builds an either a serious emotional connection to the brand or will lead to a joke. This, however, is not something that you would see as much in Japanese advertisements. Commercials and their surrounding branding strategies are just fundamentally designed differently.
The first difference is that Japanese companies love to use “talent” (タレント, variety TV stars) or idols to sell products. It would not be unusual to have an ad campaign (and possibly product!) actually designed around the talent, rather than having a talent just be a spokesperson as an afterthought. The more I understand this aspect of the industry, the more I realise this is probably why talent/idols/famous people etc. are forced to follow relatively strict rules regarding their private life. Many of them are tied to a product in someway, and if they do anything inappropriate it can potentially upset several brands or ad campaigns.
Second is they tend to use several people dancing to a jingle on the screen for the entirety of the commercial. There really is no story aspect or build-up. This song and dance pattern is actually a relatively new trend corresponding to the change in TV format. I have read from a few sources that some ad executives insist that the wider screen “needs to be filled up”, so their go-to option is a simple dance number. I think it is also probably an easy format to work with in a short shooting schedule, which might further contribute to its popularity.
The third is that Japanese companies love to use mascots and cute characters for a wide variety of products that aren’t even marketed towards children. People of all ages have a built-in affinity towards cuteness, so a character is often used to appeal to consumers and increase brand awareness.
Sometimes the play on words for these character names are pretty amazing. Epson’s mascot is a small shark called Chisame (ちいサメ). Chisame can mean “on the small side”, but the end word same that means shark. Thus, tiny shark, a suiting name for character that sells a small-sized home photo printer. He also has a friend called Eisan (エイさん) which is a play on words for manta ray and the standard paper size, A3 (pronounced eisan in Japanese).
Here is a fabulous commercial I saw this morning for the product Colac (コーラック), a “gentle” laxative marketed towards women. I will explain this in another post, but women and men usually talk way more openly about their bathroom habits than someone in America would be comfortable talking about. This commercial is kind of cute and completely inoffensive, but it would never fly in America. Ever. I think the internet would blow-up if it aired during regular broadcast hours.