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.
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).
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.