TOKYO — WITHIN the past year, American companies have challenged a Japanese taboo against running advertisements that explicitly compare rival products.
Unlike in the United States, where a no-nonsense style uses product names, many ads in Japan use indirect images to impress consumers.
"The content [of Japanese advertisements] is like haiku," a short Japanese verse form, says Takahashi Nakahata, a commercial copywriter.
In some cases, although the Japanese ads do not provide direct reference to a rival company or product, most Japanese can infer who the unstated party is.
General Motors Corporation stretched the cultural limits earlier this month by listing the specifications of its Cadillac Seville against Nissan's Infiniti in a newspaper ad. GM, however, discreetly used small type.
Honeywell Inc. directly cited Minolta Camera Company in newspaper ads in February after winning a US court judgment against the firm for a patent infringement. The sober ad generated publicity and, along with the GM ad, increased debate on the effectiveness of such ads with Japanese audiences.
The most prominent incident was a TV commercial run last spring that directly compared Pepsi-Cola against Coca-Cola. The ad jested that Pepsi-Cola enhances the on-stage performance of popular rap-music star MC Hammer, while his energy diminishes when he tries Coca-Cola. The ad created a furor in advertising and business circles and went off the air in May when Pepsi could not get air time on all the stations.
Coca-Cola of Japan had filed a complaint to the Japan Fair Trade Commission that Pepsi was infringing on its trademark; Pepsi-Cola Japan complained that Coke had pressured the TV companies to drop the Pepsi ad. The JFTC ruled in July that the ad was legal and that charges of coercion by Coca-Cola were not verifiable.
Meanwhile, Pepsi placed a print ad requesting readers to write in what they thought about the TV spot in exchange for a video copy of the ad. The company received 88,000 responses, 95 percent favorable.
In August, Pepsi convinced TV companies to air a revised commercial that veiled the Coca-Cola can in a mosaic blur and altered the subtitle to read "other cola."
The publicized dispute, along with the ad itself, may have helped Pepsi Japan's sales to jump 16 percent last year, while the industry saw only about 4 percent growth, says Tony Illsley, Pepsi-Cola Japan president.
It is, however, too hasty to conclude that Pepsi has removed the taboo, opening the way for others.
"Comparative advertising is difficult in a culture where it is rude to say I'm better than the other person," says George Fields, chairman of ASI Market Research (Japan) Inc. "You're not allowed to knock the competition, not in public."
"We discuss whether or not a given ad casts aspersion and commits libel against some party, with various Japanese societal factors being the standard of measurement," says Takeshi Tsukii, a Fuji TV spokesman.
"We decided to stop [showing the Pepsi ad], because we viewed it as too provocative," he says.
But some note the absence of consumers' interest in the decisionmaking process. "The Japanese company tends to say, 'We know what's best for the consumer,' " Mr. Fields says.
Mr. Tsukii responds: "How are they [viewers] supposed to judge? Things will get out of hand if we make decisions based on just what's appealing."
Pepsi, having succeeded in putting a dent in a market where Coca-Cola has close to 90 percent share, says everyone benefits from the competition such ads generate. "TV companies fear losing their big customer [Coca-Cola] by airing the ad. But it doesn't make sense for Coca-Cola to simply retreat faced with our ad. Coca-Cola will have to place more ads to compete with us, and the TV companies should benefit," says Toshitake Yamagishi, Pepsi Japan's assistant marketing director.
Pepsi is again at the bargaining table with TV companies for this summer's ad campaign, but perhaps with more caution. Yamagishi says Pepsi might soften its comparative style and try to bypass national networks and negotiate directly with local stations where Coke has a smaller share.