Celebs, High-Context, and the Wild World of Japanese Ads 

Celebs, High-Context, and the Wild World of Japanese Ads 

From TV CMs to subway posters and magazine inserts—Japanese ads are rich in variety. Some arrest the senses with outlandish sets and explosive designs. Some are softer in their approach with minimalist scenes of nature, animals, and everyday life. 

Yet, one commonality penetrates the broad range of Japanese ad strategy: celebrity power. 

Japanese businesses love using celebrities so much, it can be challenging to find adverts not featuring one. They are not wrong in using this technique. 

A survey with 800 respondents from Tokyo (400) and Osaka (400) conducted by KK ASMARQ (2020) reveals just how much consumers in the two metropolitan cities want to see celebrities in their ads.

When asked what they would like to see in an advertisement, celebrities took first place (Tokyo 44.3%, Osaka 47.0%), beautiful scenery came second (Tokyo 32.8%, Osaka 29.8%), and animals third (Tokyo 27.8%, Osaka 28.0%).

Is there a strategy at play? We take a look. 

The importance of being modest

Japanese culture considers modesty a virtue. Therefore, excessive deliberating on product value and how it compares against competing products comes off as obnoxious, boasting, or prideful. This is where US ad strategy differs widely from ad strategy in Japan. 

A typical Western-style marketing approach centers on highlighting the benefits of a product and then connecting those benefits to core human desires—an approach penetrating Japan's ads, too, albeit slowly. 

Compared to businesses in Western cultures, Japanese companies are more reserved in explaining their products. And Japanese brands use celebrities in their ad strategy to advertise their products without having to directly discuss a product's benefits. 

According to Tomohiro Doai, marketing director of Coca-Cola Japan for 3 years and current managing director of Twentieth Century Fox's Japanese division, Japanese companies will use the celeb-halo effect so their brand will gain recognition by association, thereby avoiding the need for blatant self-praise. 

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The celeb-halo effect explained

When consumers see a celebrity they admire in an ad, their positive feelings for the celebrity are transferred onto the endorsed brand or product, creating automatic trust and goodwill toward it, even if scant information is shown about the product.

Image: Members of Arashi, a hugely popular band, in a nationwide advertising campaign for Softbank, October 2020
[Image: Members of Arashi, a hugely popular band, in a nationwide advertising campaign for Softbank, October 2020]

Thus, celebrity endorsement remains one of the most effective ways to attract consumer attention in Japan.

Additionally, a celebrity endorsing a product provides brands with a ready-made following willing to try whatever the celeb is advertising. We discussed the bandwagon effect in Japan and how "strength in numbers" influences consumer behavior in a previous article.

However, there are dangers to this marketing method: unwise casting may backfire. When you hire celebrities to endorse your brand or product, you entangle your brand's image with the celebrity's reputation. A public fall from grace might be your brand's undoing.

There's another reason Japanese ads can seem confusing to a Western audience…

High-context ads and what that looks like 

Japanese marketing is said to be high-context and American marketing low-context. Here's what that means. 

High-context marketing seeks to establish emotional and memorable connections through powerful imagery and other poignant means. It relies on the consumers' ability to sense the right feelings about the product and the brand.

Low-context marketing goes straight to the point and leaves little space for ambiguity and clutter. It employs clear and precise methods to relay the benefits of purchasing a product and why and how the brand surpasses the competition.

Take a look at some features of high-context and low-context marketing.

High-context characteristics:

  • Large photos

  • Vivid colors

  • Celebrity endorsement

  • Catchy music

  • Stylized language

Low-context characteristics:

  • More words

  • Straightforward copywriting

  • Clean design 

  • Strong call-to-action

  • Clear image of the product

You've likely heard or seen some of Japan's many offbeat and outrageous CMs, as there are many YouTube channels dedicated to their appreciation.

CM visuals are often entirely irrelevant to the product or service, but that doesn't matter. See it once, and you cannot unsee it. This is the effect of high-context marketing.

But not all high-context advertisements rely on shock value. 

The minimalistic style of the traditional Japanese arts can also be seen as high-context, identifiable by soft and elegant colors, generous blank spaces, blurry backgrounds, crisp foreground, and the peaceful ambient BGM, altogether communicating the spirit of Zen—yet another form of high-context marketing.

Japanese ads predominantly focus on capturing the essence of the product and fostering positive and lasting impressions of the brand through indirect but consequential ways. This high-context marketing style juxtaposes with the more logical, assertive, and upfront American marketing approach that communicates product value and benefits with unabashed clarity.

What approach is most effective? 

When making an advert for a Japanese audience, a measured mix of both approaches is necessary. 

The high-context style may be adept at creating memorable connections but lacks a solid call to action. Use high-context marketing tactics to ignite the right feels in your Japanese customers and incorporate a low-context (e.g., direct call-to-action) approach to ensure customer conversion. 

Understanding cultural differences in ad strategy will help you plan effectively. But there's more to cover here. Coming soon, we'll cover advertising laws everyone ought to know about for anyone selling anything in Japan. 

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