Photo/IllutrationA gay couple in the Japanese version of Volvo’s commercial. (Provided by Volvo Cars Japan)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Sex is losing its appeal in Japan’s TV commercials. As are sexism and stereotypes.

Criticism over a succession of “outdated” commercials has set off a struggle to develop new standards for TV ads that reflect diversity in society and are acceptable for consumers.

One commercial that came under fire last year was for Suntory Holdings Ltd.’s Itadaki imitation beer. The ad showed a man on business trips coming across women who utter phrases filled with sexual innuendo, such as, “Tastes good if you suck it” and “I have swallowed it down.”

Public outrage erupted, and the company soon withdrew the commercial.

A Unicharm Corp. commercial promoting disposable diapers was also blasted for favorably depicting a mother raising her baby without the help of the father.

Tokyo-based Video Research Ltd., an audience ratings company that examines commercials for advertisers before they are aired, has been receiving requests from corporations to check if their depictions of women are appropriate.

To meet the growing demand for such services, Video Research decided to introduce new standards to evaluate commercials.

On a trial basis, the company asked 2,500 consumers to assess TV ads based on various questions, such as: “Do you feel comfortable with the way both sexes are depicted”; “Do you feel comfortable with the way they share household chores”; “Do you sympathize with the commercial”; “Do you feel the commercial promotes the empowerment of women”; and “Do you think the expressions used are appropriate in this age.”

The results showed, for example, that both men and women gave high marks to a toilet-cleaning tool commercial where the husband cleans the bathroom by himself. On the lower end of the rankings was another commercial in which the wife cleans the mess left behind by her husband in the bathroom.

Reiko Murata, 40, who was involved in the study, said the goal for businesses is not simply to avoid criticism from viewers.

“Advertisements represent the stance of the companies,” Murata said. “Expressions should give sufficient consideration to the diversity of life and properly depict the new image of family.”

Working with Toko Tanaka, an associate professor of media culture at Otsuma Women’s University, Video Research intends to analyze commercials broadcast over the last 10 years by business type.

Quantitative assessments will be made on a number of topics, including the roles of the wife and husband in household chores.

That way, the study can show changes in the images of family and gender in advertisements over the years.

Tanaka said the changing images are behind consumers’ reactions to TV commercials.

“As an increasing number of husbands and wives work together and the number of unmarried people rises, the traditional advertisements’ depictions of households and workplaces now appear to be old-fashioned for consumers,” Tanaka said.


Late last year, a group set up by experts and journalists to thoroughly review expressions and diversity in media held a symposium in Tokyo.

A TV commercial of a Thermos vacuum bottle was introduced as a good example of advertisements today.

Satoko Takada, 45, creative director of ad agency McCann Erickson Japan Inc., which produced the Thermos commercial, said conventional TV commercials of household goods typically feature “hard-working homemakers who get tired but can relax by using certain items.”

But interviews with female users of the Thermos bottle show that many of them were impressed by the product’s excellent temperature maintaining abilities, not its user-friendliness.

Their reactions prompted McCann Erickson to consider “unordinary” scenes in which people are exposed to extremely high or low temperatures.

The idea finally resulted in commercials featuring people enjoying temperature-controlled drinks from Thermos bottles while engaging in charcoal making and other jobs in extreme temperatures.

“By showing work under different conditions, viewers could imagine how nice it is to be able to enjoy beverages of proper temperatures during work,” Takada said. “If they can share underlying factors, a higher level of sympathy can be achieved.”

Takada also noted that McCann Erickson’s ad design team comprises members of both sexes of various ages and nationalities.

Volvo Cars Japan has drawn praise from customers for a commercial featuring a gay couple bringing their faces close to each other, as well as opposite-sex couples. They all stare closely at each other and hug in a car.

The ad, which aired last year, is a shorter version of a two-minute commercial for Volvo’s Swedish headquarters. The gay couple scene was kept in to emphasize the automaker is from a country that respects diversity.

According to Volvo officials, many gay people who have visited the company’s retail shop in Tokyo said they appreciate the commercial.

Takeshi Koguchi, 49, manager of Volvo Cars Japan, said the advertisement is aimed at improving the brand image of Volvo.

“We want to build such a good brand image that those who buy Volvo vehicles will be praised by people around them for choosing good cars,” he said.