Japan’s Mad Men: The People Behind Weird Japanese Commercials

People around the world are mystified by Japanese advertising. We’ve written quite a few posts about Japanese commercials in the past, but it doesn’t stop with TV ads; the commercials, the packaging, the branding are all just so out there.

(Although I’m sure people outside of the US who have seen the berries and cream or “I feel great” commercials have probably wondered WTF is up with American advertising.)

But what’s the story behind these ads? As much as I’d love to imagine that these bizarre ads just occur naturally in Japan, it takes a lot of hard work and creativity to crank out these wacky ads.

While the real advertising world isn’t quite as glamorous as Mad Men depicts (although Japanese ad execs probably drink just as much), it’s still a powerful, competitive industry with high stakes.

Just take a look at Dentsu, Japan’s most powerful advertising company. Dentsu is huge. It’s the biggest advertising company in the world, raking in over $4 billion last year, and controlling almost a third of advertising in Japan.

Some classic Dentsu advertising

But Dentsu doesn’t just make the goofy, wacky kind of commercials that are known the world over. The agency has an incredible breadth of talent that ranges from the strange to the serious. Just take a look at this bullet train ad that won Dentsu several awards:

In the aftermath of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami, Dentsu’s feel-good commercial with its message of unity really struck a chord in Japan and abroad. (You can read more in the post we wrote last year.)

Even ex-Dentsu have gone on to do incredible things. Dentsu alumni Hiroshi Sasaki went on to create the Soft Bank “Shirato family” and Tommy Lee Jones Boss coffee commercials (both of which I love).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5jlGNzzVQg

And, thankfully, these wacky Japanese ads might just be coming to your country not too far in the future. A lot of Japanese ad agencies are looking to expand overseas, and have put their money where their mouths are. Last year, Dentsu spent $5 billion dollars to buy a British ad agency.

Between that and SoftBank’s recent acquisition of American telecom company Sprint, I can only hope that I’ll be able to see the whole Shirato family here in the US.

There are some other parallels between the Japanese advertising industry and Mad Men — let’s just say that Dentsu has been behind things much more dubious than uplifting commercials about trains. The agency found itself ensnared in scandal a few years back when it was discovered that the Japanese government had been holding town hall meetings with paid actors planted in the audiences.

This town hall scandal helped bring down the then-Japanese prime minister. Who collaborated with the government in orchestrating these meetings? None other than Dentsu.

So while Dentsu, along with other Japanese ad agencies, make incredible commercials, billboards, magazine ads, and all sorts of promotional materials, remember that they might be a bit more Don Draper than you would like.

Read More: Otosan, Japan’s top dog, The lion’s Dentsu

  • luscher

    how did people respond to ”Mr. Sparkle” on Simpsons ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/kitty.amrita Kitty Amrita

    That Nutrigrain ad was a short film project, not a real ad … not that people in other countries would realize that …

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    That’s disappointing :(

  • ジョサイア

    I want to see adds with the Shirato family in them in america…then I would be truly happy :D

  • Reptic

    Anyone who thinks America is going to get commercials with the Shirato family is downright crazy. Yea, I know it would be nice, but unless they replace all the actors with English-speaking Americans and changed their last name to “White” or something there is no way the commercials would work, especially because most Americans have never even heard of the Shirato family to begin with. It’s a nice dream, but it’s incredibly unrealistic.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    FINE, CRUSH MY DREAM ;_;

  • Jirugi

    The Shirato family has universal charm imo :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/AbigailCamarillo Cam Abi

    Bahahaha! Now I want to try a chocoball~!

  • 死んだカエル

    Yeah, but isn’t that just a matter of fact. I mean when was the last time you saw foreign language commercial air on American TV? So, your point is like adding redundancy to the obvious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    As a former ad executive,

    i always admire the Japanese advertisers like Dentsu and their crazy ideas. They are possible the one last avenue for the crazy creative people to shine in Japan.

  • Emi

    Is it me, or is the Nissin Cup Noodle add, foreign, dubbed over in Japanese, then subbed in English?

  • DAVIDPD

    Anything that gets you talking about the product is a success as far as I am concerned.

  • CelestialSushi

    I did see a Shell commercial on American TV within the past few years that did have some spoken Japanese in it… the voice-over narrator was speaking English, but the people in the commercial spoke unsubtitled Japanese, however briefly. So yeah, not entirely foreign language, but still had some in it. You could probably just subtitle the Shirato family and have the voice-over toward the end in English. But that’s just my thought on this.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Not sure!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    It’s not just you! Those people’s mouth are moving, but it doesn’t match up with what’s being said.

  • luscher

    wha ?!? are all the ‘Lords of Fugu’ stateside ?

    thanks anyway, Hashi !