JLPT BC 117 | What Japanese TV Commercials say about Culture

JLPT BC 117 | What Japanese TV Commercials say about Culture post image

You have always heard about the wacky celebrity endorsements for Japanese products. Heck, there was a whole movie that featured a Western celebrity endorsing a Japanese product. And it’s a staple joke that has gotten around, a few times.

Compare this to the states where actor endorsements are nearly non-existent. But sometimes should be existent, I mean, can we get rid of the Kohl’s lady already? In general, if a celebrity were to endorse something it would hurt their image, or so the theory goes.

Sports players and politicians are seemingly exempt from this, as well as voice overs. So it seems like celebrities need to not “appear” in commercials.

But, why is there this rift? Shouldn’t it be okay to see your favorite celebrities in a commercial without them looking like a sell-out? Why is everyone in Japan exempt from this?

In the 80s

The 80s was a magical time of celebrity appearances in commercials on both sides of the Pacific. In Japan, almost any respected company had somebody from overseas endorsing their products. It was a heyday of celebrity endorsements. You could see all sorts of people making fools of themselves on TV.

There was a lot of interest in America and foreign culture during the bubble era in Japan and it shows in the advertising. Check out some classics from the Italian Stallion and Mr. Terminator:

In the states, something similar was happening. We had Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and David Bowie endorsing Pepsi for example. These were simple commercials that didn’t actually say anything about the product, just that it was cool:


Celebrities are still present in Japanese commercials. There seem to be less overt endorsements than there were in the past though. The foreign actors sometimes don’t make any comments at all. They just seem to blend in to the overall scene.  They don’t come out and scream ‘buy this thing now!’ For example, the continuing saga of Tommy Lee Jones and Boss coffee is interesting in this respect:

A lot of companies have opted for domestic stars recently as well. For example, most of the major brands like Coca-Cola use Japanese celebrities like Exile (an army of dancing pop singers):

Compare that to the commercial running in the States (and probably other English speaking countries):

Notice the non-existent celebrities?  No more pop stars in coke commercials anymore.  Depressing, I know.

What does it all Mean?

In my opinion, people in Japan are a lot more interested in other people, especially people they ‘know’. By ‘know’ I mean, they have seen them a lot on TV or around. People will generally connect with the celebrity because they see something of themselves in that character. Somebody they want to be.

It’s like the commercial is asking “Are you this kind of person?” then buy this.

Whereas the commercials in the States (and for a lot of the Western world), the focus is more on what the advantage is to you the consumer. You get no calories and great taste. You save money and look great etc…

I think this is interesting and worth noting because commercials show what tends to drive somebody to do something (e.g. buy coke). In other words, commercials tend to show what triggers somebody into action, what motivates them. In Japan, it seems more like people are the stars, while in the States, it is more about appealing to how useful the product is to the viewer.

Of course there are numerous exceptions to this. For example, there are Japanese commercials that tout the low cost of a cell phone carrier and American commercials with famous people doing famous things.

But, in general, you can see a clear difference between the two different kinds of advertising.

Anyway, this is just a random observation from a guy living in Japan. So, what do you think? Are there more people persons in Japan? Let me know in the comments.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Lukas Frank July 13, 2013, 8:13 am

    Hello Mac, I think you’re right with your observation. Recently I took a class about Japanese television and we watched many different TV shows and commercials. My group talked about the Japanese phenomenon of AKB48 and so I got the impression that it is important for Japanese people to feel close to their idols/to know that their idols are also ordinary people. If those idols present certain products on commercials, it might influence a lot of people. Actually we’re analyzing the fashion magazine “CHOKiCHOKi” and there also seems to be the phenomenon of identifying yourself with people and the fashion they wear.

    • Clayton MacKnight July 15, 2013, 9:55 am

      Yeah, it is definitely a different feeling with famous people here. For one thing, they seem to be on TV a lot. Celebrities that do endorsements are constantly appearing in dramas, variety shows and the like. Another thing that I felt was different was Ken Watanabe (the big time Hollywood star) after the earthquakes in Tohoku made a personal call for help and then visited people in shelters in the region. It just kind of hit me as something that doesn’t happen so often in the States. But maybe I have just never read about it.

      In other words, celebrities aren’t these people that sit in Ivory Towers all day occasionally coming down to do a few movies and then retreating again.

  • Afoofoo July 16, 2013, 6:58 am

    Oh wow that’s a really interesting point of view! It even made my day Haha! Thank you for the post (and commercials to watch!)

    • Clayton MacKnight July 19, 2013, 12:36 am

      I love the old 80s videos Arnold and Sly have no idea what they are saying in Japanese.

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