Image Making Beats Hard Sell


TWO small brothers sit in a bullet train, looking out the window for their grandfather. Meanwhile, their gray-haired grandpa pedals a bicycle as hard as possible to a river bank and runs on foot to the shore. As the train emerges from a tunnel, the boys scream with joy. Far down below the bridge, the old man waves a big white cloth, as he had promised to do. The commercial closes with the phrase: ``To meet is the best.'' The 60-second advertisement for Central Japan Railway Company, the so-called JR Tokai, is a successful Japanese commercial. Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency, gave it first prize in the TV commercial category of this year's advertisement awards.

``The combination of a grandfather and his grandsons touches the hearts of Japanese people,'' says Hideo Fukagawa, secretary-general of the awards administration office.

In Japanese commercials, gathering people's sympathy is often more important than making direct product appeals. Consumers and even ad agencies think it is unsophisticated to explain too much or to compare products in a commercial. Japanese commercials not only aim to boost sales, but also to promote greater trust of a company and intimacy with its consumers.

JR Tokai, the national railway company (formerly owned by the government), has been consistently featuring its major product, Shinkansen (the bullet train). But, at the same time, a series of commercials like the one with the grandfather and his grandchildren has successfully removed the company's old image of being inflexible. The railway has become one of the most popular companies among university seniors, which many say would not have happened if it were not for the privatization and the effective advertisement.

Japanese advertising ``is something that enables consumers and manufacturers to communicate with each other,'' says Toshio Yamaki, professor of advertising at Tokyo Keizai University. ``The advertisement must be something that gives consumers a good impression and makes them say, `I like this commercial.'''

For the most part, Japanese commercials are vague in making product sales pitches, choosing instead to woo people's feelings. What's often shown in Japanese advertisements are beautiful scenes with music, something cute, drama with tender humor, and popular TV stars.

``As we have a word, haragei, or a knack for making one's views felt. Japanese people think it better to make others understand with few words,'' says Takashi Inoue, a creative division manager at Hakuhodo Inc.

In the United States, which is a melting pot of immigrants from many countries, everything should be as logical as possible to be understood by every group, he explains.

Referring to the rarity of ads in Japan that make product comparisons, he says, ``Japanese people hate the idea of standing in a better position by speaking ill of others.''

Unlike an American agency, a Japanese counterpart often makes commercials for several competitive firms in one industry. Thus, Japanese ads have a soft-sell image and this tendency is likely to continue, observers say. Most people have already acquired daily necessities in this affluent society. What's more, many products have developed in a way that there is little difference in functions and quality among them.

``The next question for a consumer in buying something is `whether I like this or not,''' says Mr. Inoue.

To most Japanese, this question is the same as whether they like a specific manufacturer or not.

``Many people choose products by their degree of trust toward the manufacturer,'' explains Mr. Yamaki. ``For example, people buy things because it's made by Hitachi or something. But in the US, people choose by product, not by company.''

To present a good image, companies often use popular TV singers and stars, both Japanese and foreign. In Japan, gossip about those people is reported every day on TV and in magazines.

``Consumers feel intimacy with them,'' says Yamaki. ``They judge that products which their intimate friends use must be good.''

Manufacturers of quality products are trying a new approach, which appeals to people's quest for more affluence.

``They are suggesting such and such products create more affluent scenes in everyday life,'' says Mr. Fukagawa.

For example, Nissan Motor Co. has a commercial for a new car with the slogan ``Eat-Sleep-Play.'' As if to ignore the fact that many Japanese still work very hard, the car runs smoothly through the countryside on a sunny day. A male popular singer talks to viewers from a car window in a very relaxed mood, asking, ``How are you doing, everybody?''

This year, steel manufacturers have developed a series of bizarre advertisements for recruitment. Those ads, using cartoon figures and nonsense, caught the attention of students and helped the companies shed the staid image they have had since a recession a few years ago.

Also, reflecting a trend in Japanese society, women who look more active and stronger than men are seen in TV commercials.

``A Japanese commercial is a company's campaign that covers such a wide range (of issues) as recruitment, corporate morale, and distribution effects,'' says Inoue, while US ads focus on promoting the sales of products.

Experts in Japan's 28-billion-yen industry note that foreign companies operating in Japan have been tailoring their ads here to the Japanese consumers' taste.

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