20 June 2005

Misutaa Supaakoru

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:15 am

sparkle.jpgKan Tong’s “Wok Star” campaign is turning a few heads with its introduction to high-octane, seizure-inducing advertising experiences of the kind most often found on Japanese television. The spot features comedian Hung Le and an unidentified co-star expressing their enthusiasm for the stir-fry–helper to disgruntled diners and bewildered shoppers alike, accompanied by a psychotically bouncy pachinko-house theme tune. It all seems to be in an over-excited kind of Vietnamese (a translation is available here), although the titles are in Chinese. The commercial gives the strong impression that everybody involved with it is spectacularly, if gleefully, insane.

Some people have complained that the advertisement is racist, because it portrays Asian people as clear fruitcakes and Asian cultures as tasteless and terrifying. Others counter that the ad is a pretty note-perfect reproduction of the style, pace and enunciation used in many actual ads overseas. Check out this Japanese spot for crab-and-mayonnaise pizza for an excellent example. Fans of Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation should know that Bill Murray got off extremely lightly in his Suntory ads: real-life Japanese advertisers have done a lot worse to big-name American stars, almost all of whom have fallen to temptation. The Simpsons captured the key aspects well with their Mr Sparkle ad, and ad agency Clemenger BBDO and production company The Pound have done a pretty good job here too.

Yet others have pointed out that Japanese television doesn’t have much to do with Chinese and South-East–Asian stir-fries promoted by a Vietnamese-Australian performer, and is still racist because thanks to the old “all these Asians are the same” solecism. But Kan Tong (a brand of MasterFoods, itself owned by Mars Inc) doesn’t really align itself with any country or cuisine: its Wok Star sauces cover a range of bases associated with all kinds of Asian cooking (at least the kind we have here in Australia), so perhaps the ad is a reflection of that. They might even have these kinds of ads in China or Vietnam; I don’t know.

When I was in Japan last month I watched all the ads that I could, and loved them all—but in the end I did find myself wanting to tell everybody to just calm down. It’s just a Pocky! Whatever that is. It’s just a can of Pocari Sweat! (Better than it sounds.) Professor Paul Herbig from the Ketner School of Business at Indiana’s Tri-State University explains:

Japanese advertising is designed to appeal to emotions, produce good feelings, and create a happy atmosphere. Japanese ads are visually attractive and eye-catching, featuring bright colors. This fits the Japanese visual orientation to life and reflects their sensitivity to aesthetics, color, and design. They often use symbols and strong gestures in their television commercials. Japanese ads may be humorous or witty, and they appeal to the consumer’s intelligence; however, they do not convey much product information. The vast majority of television spots are “mood commercials” designed to make the consumer feel good about the product. Japanese ads seem to violate many of the American precepts for good advertising; sometimes it is hard to discern what the product is from viewing the ad.

It sure is. Of course not all Japanese commercials have this jackhammer style; some are quite sort of soothing and ethereal. But many of the ones I saw were like the Wok Star one. Is it racist to poke fun at another culture’s advertisements—which are created, after all, as part of the serious endeavour of selling things to people, and which presumably work well enough on the people to make them buy the things? I’m tempted to say: it’s television commercials, for Christ’s sake. It’s not ancient rituals or cherished traditions. Surely television commercials the world over are available to our mockery. For all their sensitive aesthetics, these ads are just bonkers, they are just too excited about these fairly mundane consumer products—just as our ads have very strange ideas about soft drinks and the miraculous powers of various confectionaries and how loud you have to talk about furniture sales; and I would encourage anyone from anywhere to mock them as vigorously as they deserve.

If you do think the ad is racist, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Bureau. These guys deal with about 2000 complaints a year, about 25% of which relate to the offensive portrayal of people on the basis of race, sex, age, religion or disability. In 2003, of the 2620 complaints made only 23 were upheld, though 113 of the ads were withdrawn by the advertisers before any determination was made. So far this year the ASB has pinged Telfast for showing people driving into flowerbeds without seatbelts, Fuji for that ad where a hostage is killed for not having any family snapshots in his wallet, and almost all the car manufacturers for portraying driving as fun. Hahn Premium withdrew its “Life’s Short—Drink Great Beer” ad (also by Clemenger BBDO) featuring a dwarf being eaten by a hippo. But we can leave that for another time.

One Response to “Misutaa Supaakoru”

  1. dave Says:

    altho you watched a lot of japanese ads, i dont think you got a real sense for what MOST japanese ads are like. most of them are pretty low key, albeit bright. i love the simpsons, but i can say my girlfriend is pretty offended by the mr sparkle commercial.

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