Japanese commericals: oh to be a fly on the wall during those creative meetings

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).

This character actually has been around WAY BEFORE the Left Shark. Hmm Katy Perry?

This character actually has been around WAY BEFORE the Left Shark. Hmm Katy Perry? Hmm?

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.


Why do Japanese people wear cold masks all the time? The reason is probably deeper than you ever expected.

It's a sign of the times.

It’s a sign of the times.

I have had several friends that have come to visit me in Tokyo ask me why they keep seeing people are wearing cold masks .

“What’s going on…Is it the SARS?”

NO! Not at all!

You would never see anyone in the US wear cold masks unless they were doing something directly related to a medical procedure or cleaning up some sort of nasty chemical. I think it sparks a sense of uneasiness in Americans- it feels like there is some invisible, unknown danger lurking about.

However, cold masks are incredibly commonplace year round. Here are the main reasons you will find Japanese people running around wearing cold masks:

1. You have a cold or allergies:
Imagine you wake up with a nasty case of the sniffles. You aren’t quite sick enough to take time off work, so you mask up on your way out the door in order to prevent coughing and sneezing on the people around you. Remember that many people ride crowded trains and buses to and from work, so how embarrassing and rude would it be if you sneezed on the face of the person that you are crammed next to? It is just a form of consideration to help keep your bodily fluids to yourself.

2. You don’t want to have a cold:
Imagine you are in a train full of snifflers and germs, and when you get to your office it too is also full of coughers and sneezers. While there are some considerate people out there regarding coughing and sneezing, it can’t hurt to have a mask on when a bug is going around. Big offices and schools can a breeding ground for something nasty. Some people will argue that it won’t really prevent catching anything because people don’t wear them correctly* for communicable disease prevention, but it still is widely regarded as a good type of preventive measure.

3. UV protection:
Some people use masks as a way to block their face from direct sunlight to prevent damage from UV rays. The mask and sunglass combination is a hit among both famous and regular people( and doubles as an easy way to go incognito mode I guess).

4. To protect from cold or dry skin:
When it is cold outside, a mask can help keep your face warm and comfortable while walking around. It can also help to prevent your skin from drying out and getting chapped from the wind. (I actually wear a mask long flights since it is so dry in the airplane cabin. It helps!)

…now here is one of the harder to explain reasons for so many masked people in Tokyo:

5.  You just don’t want to show your face:
In recent years some people have developed a dependency on their masks and wear them for no particular functional or sanitary reason. Their mask act like a sort of security blanket, and is the de facto symbol of “leave me alone”. Fashion masks with different prints and colors are becoming hot sellers as some people describe the cold mask as the “underwear of their face”. They just don’t feel comfortable going outside without it.

I think the last reason is probably the hardest to grasp if you haven’t lived in Japan before. People here are really protective of their privacy and much more self-conscious of how they look than their Western counterparts. They also are concerned about running into people that they might know, so if they are not in the mood to interact with other people they will hide their face while outside.

This reason for wearing a mask that involves nothing related to hygiene or functionality is called datemasuku (伊達マスク, literally a mask just for appearance sake).

A survey performed in Shibuya found that 30% of mask wearers in that area were actually datemasuku. Here are a few reasons brought up to explain why they are wearing a mask**:

– Makes them feel more relaxed
– They hate their face
– It’s hard to tell where they are looking, and they can feel at ease
– They will probably not be recognised by people they know speaking.
– They don’t have to talk to anyone
– If they have to talk to someone, then they can feel more confident
– They will look more attractive with the mask on
– They can go out without makeup on.
– They can go out without shaving/have a 5 o’clock shadow

So new travellers to Tokyo, people are just being careful. There is nothing going around… other than some possible self-esteem issues. No need to be alarmed.

Mixi: Rise and fall of Japan’s first large SNS

In general I think it is safe to say you can not apply the same digital marketing strategies in Japan as you would for US and most other places. Ad creative, media, and users are just not the same. Basically, cultural and language differences caused Japan’s internet to develop in a closed-off ecosystem that does not generally correlate with Western and/or English language internet culture. Memes, jokes, site layouts…everything is just different.
Mixi is an interesting piece of Japanese internet “history” that gives a bit of insight into this phenomenon.
In 2004 Mixi launched an SNS platform that was accessible from a desktop and feature phone portal site. At its initial launch and high growth period services included blog publishing, member to member messaging, photo albums, community creation, and games. At one point everyone had it, and it felt like most people were active almost on a daily basis.
Mixi continued to grow in popularity as an SNS until it’s peak around 2012. In recent years monthly active users have sharply decreased along with advertising revenue, and it is not the shining star that it used to be.
So what caused it to peak? Why did it lose popularity?
Here are my theories based off my experience as both a user and working in digital marketing:
Problem 1: invite only system
Initially you could not just join Mixi when you wanted. You would have to get an invite code from an existing user, so there was a big hurdle to overcome just to register. I remember in early 2006 when I signed up that I needed to ask a few friends for a spare code. It took about 3-4 days to register! I can understand why in the first few months why they would want to limit access (spammers, fraudulent accounts, server loads etc), but I think in the long-term it hurt their growth by having an invite system for too long. It wasn’t something you could casually join at your own convenience.
Problem 2: you needed a Japanese phone number
At one point Mixi nixed the invite system, but you still needed a valid Japanese mobile phone number in order to sign up. I feel this was another bad move that stunted the site’s growth. Japanese users who were overseas, for example, could not rely on Mixi in order to connect with friends. If you wanted to register a new account, you would need a new phone number. The whole sign up process was a big pain in the neck.
Problem 3: extreme anonymity made it hard to find friends
Japanese net users value their privacy more than US Internet users. They don’t like to put their face up online, and until Facebook spread, people were very hesitant to use their real name online for any sort of activity. Mixi did not require real names or photos, so everyone was running around with a nickname or net handle of some sort. Your friend Yamada Taro could have a handle like  “YamaTa” or maybe something even more hard to recognise like “(>▽<!!)や”, and it was really hard to keep track of which user was who if you didn’t log in for a while. Japanese people were very reserved about posting any pictures of their faces (and still are), so when a user named ぴかぴか with a picture of a chihuahua added you as a friend, you couldn’t tell if it was your best friend from middle school or some random stranger without some digging around their profile.
Problem 4: page foot prints
During it’s growth period Mixi had a “foot print” feature that showed the time of when the last 100 or so users who viewed your profile page. People were hesitant to view other people’s profiles, and it was a big deal when someone you liked viewed your page.The last time I logged in the foot print function was taken down, but I think this also hurt the site in the long-run and made people self-conscious of what they were doing while on Mixi.
Problem 5: no English version or active promotion outside of Japan
The number of Japanese internet users reached it’s saturation point, and between the initial invite system, the phone number issue, and a resistance towards non-Japanese speaking users from existing users, the platform lost chances to gain footing overseas during key growth periods. There was also never an English version during the time it was peaked, so it reenforced the pre-existing language barrier that exists on most Japan-based sites.
Problem 6: lost footing during the switch to smartphones
Mixi’s feature phone site was well designed and offered an above average user experience, but it lost traction during the initial spread of smartphones. In my opinion Facebook and Twitter apps had a better user experience. Also there was a growing acceptance of using your real name and uploading photos showing your face, users looked to other sites for social experiences.
However, despite it’s struggles as a social platform in recent years, in late 2013 Mixi’s smartphone game Monster Strike helped turn the around the sluggish sales numbers. During a success download campaign, the app had about 6,000,000 users by mid-2014. Revenue-wise it is slowly evolving from a SNS to a game company.
I think it is interesting how facebook got people to come out of their shells and use their real names and photos. Users are still incredibly shy when compared to Americans. It’s funny how these cultural traits still shine through to online personas despite the lack of “borders” on the sites.

Finally got to meet with my LINE friends!

LINE has taken over the way people send messages on their phones in the last couple of years. Snapchat or WhatsApp don’t really have any footing here, and as of last summer the number of users has grown to over 50 million domestically. (I work with stuff related digital marketing and all that fun stuff, so this is my bread and butter.) From chatting to job searching, LINE has a wide variety of functions for both users and small businesses to large businesses.

Back in the day of feature phones, people hardly used SMS to communicate, and instead everyone used their phone’s email address to “text” friends. It was pretty tedious to chat in a group or message something quickly. However with phone number portability between carriers and the spread of smartphones, quick communication has completely changed. Back in the day when you made a new friend, you would normally ask what their mail address what, but now it is all about exchanging your LINE ids. The whole dynamic has changed in just 3-4 years.

I think the genius behind LINE was how well their characters work with branding the app. Their designs are easily recongizable while still being liked by a pretty wide range of people- it’s cute but not too cute. They were part of the first set of stamps that came with the app, so from day one they have been part of the whole chatting experience.

Anyway, there is a LINE character goods shop in Harajuku, and I finally made my way inside…

Untitled design

I’m the 6th LINE friend.

A+++ Will go back again.