David Ogilvy once said that ‘a good advertisement is one that sells the product without drawing attention to itself’. If so, the new Nike ad currently running in Japan is about as big a failure as you can get. It has certainly drawn plenty of attention to itself, producing more angry denunciations than sales.
The ad snappily titled ‘The Future isn’t Waiting’ features scenes of bullying and discrimination directed at mixed-raced athletes in Japanese schools. They then fight back and triumph through the power of sport — and the power of Nike sportswear. Boycotters have claimed that the ad massively overstates a real, but far from endemic or Japan-specific problem, and is stirring up division under the fig leaf of Nike’s progressive ‘corporate values’ while really just cynically exploiting currently fashionable ideology for profit.
One reason the Nike ad may have been so badly received here is that the Japanese are simply not used to this kind of advertising. Japanese commercials, often far more entertaining than the programs which interrupt them, are blissfully free of this sort of sermonizing. In fact, they are one of the things I feel nostalgic about when I return to the UK, knowing that as soon as I deplane at Heathrow I will be relentlessly battered around the head with messages of diversity from every billboard, poster, and TV commercial I encounter. And it won’t stop until I get back to Japan.
Japanese adverts tend to fall into a few general categories whose formulae are not much tinkered with. First, there are the family ads, a family meaning a hard-working husband, his slightly Stepford-ish wife, and two adorable kids living in a suspiciously large and pristine home. The usually-aproned mother will be shown discovering the life-changing properties of a pack of instant noodles, pasta sauce, cleaning product, or gadget, and then unveiling the results to her ecstatic family. Writing about such ads, the great observer of Japanese culture Donald Ritchie described the cast as acting like ‘manic depressives on the upward phase’.
Then there are the beauty or health product ads, that feature attractive young women achieving preternatural levels of dermatological cleanliness or tonsorial perfection through the application of magical new products or devices. Or, if they’re at work, they’ll be shown banishing their headaches or intestinal disorders through some fantastic new medication, or staying powerful through the endless working day thanks to some new kind of energy drink.
Then there are the ‘only in Japan’ ones, often containing yuri-kara, the ‘cute’ characters interacting with real people in surreal scenarios. Frequently incomprehensible, they are also weirdly addictive. And now and again we see a new addition to the big-name international celebrity or Lost in Translation file, where Hollywood stars get the best pro-rata payday of their lives to dial in a 10-second cameo and mouth some Japanese phrase they clearly don’t understand. A classic of the genre is surely Sean Connery’s endorsement of Ito ham products in the 1980s.
But perhaps the more substantial factor that led to the backlash here, and which from my experience is not just limited to older Japanese citizens, is the country’s distinct aversion to being lectured to from outside. Gaiatsu, or outside power, is a word likely to raise the hackles of even the mildest Japanese person, and for a US-based sportswear manufacturer to wag its corporate finger at Japanese society and offer its own self-serving solutions was never going to go down well.
What Japanese ads have in common is that there is no attempt made to do anything other than sell their products in a quirky and amusing way. Arguably, Nike has no concerns except sales either, but has clearly concluded that by appearing as tribunes of a global progressive anti-discrimination agenda, they will tap into an increasingly homogenous and youthful consensus — a consensus they obviously believe now includes Japan. Nike may well have miscalculated.
Discrimination exists everywhere and no one I know here would claim that Japan is an exception, or that the treatment depicted in the Nike ad has not taken place somewhere. But lecturing a proud people on how they should act and think about such issues in a sportswear ad is probably the worst way to deal with them.
So, my message to Nike is simple and I’ll deliver it in a catchy strapline:
Just don’t do it.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.