Reading Japanese Advertising: Print to TV

John L. McCreery

In his second article about Japanese advertising, John McCreery turns to the medium of television, which has unique possibilities not found in print advertising.

In the last issue of the SWET Newsletter, I talked generally about how to read Japanese ads and illustrated the approach I advocate by looking at the print ads for the launch of KDDI that won the 2001 Tokyo Copywriters Club Grand Prix. I mentioned their key elements, a bright orange background, the campaign logo that appears to be printed on a strip of blue denim with frayed edges, and, after the first teaser, a provocative headline reversed on the orange background. I noted the words in the campaign logo: the new corporate logo “KDDI,” the English phrase “Designing the Future,” and, in roman letters, the message, “surōgan mo daiji da keredo, jikkō suru no ga ichiban daiji” (Although slogans are important, what you actually do is the most important). The campaign strategy: to position KDDI as the one and only challenger to NTT, ignoring the presence of J-Phone/Vodafone in the market.

But that was the print advertising. Now we turn to TV, a different medium with different possibilities: action, which is partially revealed in the storyboard format used in the TCC Nenkan (Tokyo Copywriters Club Annual), and sound and music, whose presence is indicated but cannot be reproduced in the TCC Nenkan.

The KDDI Launch Campaign for TV, First Series
It is not uncommon to have TV commercials and print ads that use the same images. My impression is that this is frequently the case when a campaign involves a celebrity. In the case of the KDDI launch campaign, however, the only visual element that is used in both TV and print is the denim campaign logo, and the only words that cross over from print to TV are those incorporated in it.

Based on what we see in the TCC Nenkan, the TV ads form two series, each containing three commercials. The dialogue in the first series includes the date, October 1, on which KDDI began operations. The dialogue in the second series does not, suggesting that the first series was aired before and the second series after this date.

The first series adopts an approach like that in DVDs that show us how movies are made, as well as the movies themselves. It purports to take us backstage at the advertising agency planning the campaign, to reveal, in a reflexive and highly ironic mode, the kinds of conversations in which the agency planners and their clients get involved. It is, in effect, advertising presented as anti-advertising. This cheekiness may account for its winning a Grand Prix, since this is the sort of thing that agency creatives like the TCC judges long to do.

The TCC Nenkan shows us only one image from the first commercial, a desk piled high with papers and a photograph of a man whose long hair, dark glasses, and unbuttoned casual shirt suggest he is a model or celebrity. A telephone cable runs across the bottom of the frame, in front of the photograph, and up and out of the frame to the left. We listen in on the phone conversation. AE is an account executive; T stands for Toyokawa, the man in the picture.

AE: The fact is … we are wondering if you would appear in a KDDI commercial.

T: KDDI?

AE: That’s right. On October 1, KDD, DDI, and IDO are going to become a single company.

T: So that’s it … KDD plus DDI, KDDI.

AE: Right.

T: But what about IDO?

AE: What could they be up to? Maybe IDO is the D in the middle.

Title: KDD+DDI+IDO

T: I’ll think about it (hangs up).

Title: 10-1

AE: Uh … Uh …

Title: KDDI.

The first celebrity approached has, it appears, rejected the assignment.

In the image provided for the second commercial in the series, we see another candidate celebrity, who appears to be standing on the bowsprit of a square-rigged sailing ship, dressed in a suit and talking on his cell phone. Here, AD is the art director; A is the celebrity, Asano.

AD: What we would like you to do is play the part of a man standing on a ship’s bowsprit, making a call with his cell phone.

A: Mmmmm …

AD: Then we will superimpose the copy, “KDDI and DDI and IDO are becoming one on October 1.”

A: Isn’t it weird for someone to be making a call like this?

AD: Not at all. These kinds of ships were state-of-the-art technology. That’s what it symbolizes.

A: Say “state-of-the-art” all you want. This is still too weird.

AD: Come on, this is only a rough. We will do the superimposition just right.

Title: KDD+DDI+IDO

A: It’s still too weird. I’m sorry, but …

Title: 10-1

AD: And it would have been so stylish, too …

Title: KDDI

Twice rejected, the agency soldiers on. In the third commercial, we are looking over the shoulder of a man holding a book of young-celebrity profiles. The one with a face we see clearly is labeled Nagase Masatoshi. CD is a creative director; EB is an eigyō buchō (the general manager in charge of an account service division); and PL is a young planner.

CD: Nagase? How about Nagase?

EB: Nagase! Could be OK. He hasn’t appeared in any telecommunications commercials.

PL: But isn’t he very particular about the commercials he appears in?

CD: It’s up to you to come up with an interesting plan.

PL: Me?

EB: Could we show him not holding a phone?

CD: He was recently shown holding a bowl of ramen …

EB: Will he be willing to say, “KDDI and DDI and IDO are becoming one on October 1”?

CD: We will never talk him into saying that.

PL: What are we going to do then?

CD: What are we going to do? We need a special something, a breakthrough.

Title: KDD+DDI+IDO

PL: That’s it! A special something!

Title: 10-1

CD: You talk a good game. But the plans suck …

Title: KDDI

Both as someone who has worked in an advertising agency and as someone who teaches advertising, I love this series. It pinpoints so precisely the kinds of muddles into which the people who produce advertising get themselves. The agency wants a celebrity. The account executive tries his luck but is turned down. Ditto for the art director, whose proposal his candidate labels “too weird.” It is, however, the third commercial that seems to me so painfully true to life that it’s funny. Proposals from the account executive and art director, both of whom rank relatively low in the agency hierarchy, have been rejected. Now it is up to the creative director to find a solution.

The CD’s celebrity candidate is vetted by the eigyō buchō, who is checking off the hurdles in the way. Has the candidate appeared in competitors’ advertising? No. That’s one hurdle passed. Will he be willing to say the campaign line? No, again. But that’s a problem. Who will find the solution? The creative director dumps the task on the young planner, demanding a creative breakthrough. The planner looks for wiggle room and jumps on the CD’s words “a special something!” But the CD is having none of that. He scolds the planner for talking big but coming up with nothing but dull ideas. The pressure is on.

The KDDI Launch Campaign for TV, Second Series
Since we see all the storyboards together in the TCC Nenkan, it is easy (perhaps too easy) to infer that the ads of the second series are those the young planner came up with. In the first ad we see two motorcycle cops riding ahead of a marathon. They talk about how boring it is if one runner is too far ahead of the rest, then notice that the runner in second place is starting to make his move. The titles drive home the message: “It’s those in second place who make the world interesting” and “Currently No. 2 in telecommunications.”

The remaining two ads are unusually long, 60-second commercials, probably created for use on cable and satellite TV. The first shows a man being chased by a policeman. They yell back and forth, “Stop,” “No I won’t.” Then, they seem to be taking a break. “Giving up?” asks the policeman. “No way,” says the man he is chasing as he runs away again. The last title asks, “Have you heard what we’re saying?” It is followed immediately by the campaign logo.

The last ad in this series makes fun of the “Have you heard what we’re saying?” theme. The scene is a hotel reception counter. The manager behind the counter is staring past a foreign guest at a bellboy, who seems oblivious of the fact that his fly is hanging open. It ends with the foreign guest checking his own fly, the question, and the answer, the campaign logo.

Taken together these six commercials cover the whole cycle of the advertising business, from the muddle of early stages of planning, through dramatization of the client’s message (here, “No. 2 makes the world more interesting”), to the anxiously conducted research that tests whether the message has, in fact, been communicated.

These commercials certainly worked incredibly well for the Tokyo Copywriters Club’s judges. But how did they work in the market? And what do they do for you?

From Newsletter No. 102 (July 2003)