I had been looking forward to going to Japan for most of my life. I wanted to experience a culture that is fundamentally different from my own. The first thing I saw when I stepped out of Shinjuku station was a Starbucks, which was the last thing I saw before I got on the plane at Heathrow Terminal 5.
While familiar sights might comfort some travelers, I was disappointed to witness the all-pervasive nature of an exceptionally bland global culture first hand. I knew that huge multinational brands operate in Japan, but I was hoping they'd be slightly hidden away, like cans of Coca-Cola nestled between the Pocari Sweat and the Calpis Water.
Of course Japan is still very different from the west, but there are more similarities than ever before. The fact you can eat the same Big Mac in Tokyo as you can in London is by no means the ugliest side of globalisation, but it is still pretty depressing.
It's lucky that advertising doesn't translate as well as burgers and coffee. While consumers in Japan drink the same skinny lattes from the same green paper cup, they need to be advertised to in a completely different way. Advertising needs to take into account peculiar cultural sensibilities in a way that the products themselves often don't need to.
My visit to Japan was relatively short and admittedly very superficial. I am sure that if I had delved deeper into Japanese culture I'd have found more than enough to satisfy my hunger for the extremely foreign. However, advertising and other marketing communications were, to a brief visitor, very interesting and curious cultural artifacts.
Take for example this Winston cigarette advertisement on a vending machine. This guy was carefully casted by Japanese advertising creatives. To Japanese smokers, a bald white guy in a vest is an ideal "smokesperson". To me, the whole ad is delightfully odd, and the gentleman in question seems like a very odd choice to promote any product, and cigarettes in particular.
It's these subtle differences that provide an interesting cultural juxtaposition. I can't fully explain why I find this ad so odd, and therefore so interesting. I doubt the Japanese creatives who made it could explain to me why it seemed right to them. It just did, and it sells cigarettes in their culture. In any other country it would only be run to deliberately go against cultural conventions for dramatic or comic effect.
Winston cigarettes are sold all over the world. In every country they are advertised very differently. In Puerto Rico their marketing inextricably links the brand with "salsa sensual", a type of music that is extremely popular there but is rarely heard outside of the northeastern Caribbean. For many years in the United States they sponsored NASCAR, a type of motor racing incredibly popular south of the Mason-Dixon line, but practically ignored outside the U.S. In the United Kingdom Winston cigarettes never became popular, possibly because our most famous and beloved Winston was far better known for smoking cigars. The same cigarettes must be sold here under a different name, due to a peculiar cultural sensibility.
In most cases, advertising has to be culturally unique to be fully effective. While some advertising concepts will translate easily, most agree that the best ones don't. Advertising is aimed at a mass of people, but it has to affect many very different individuals. Other than their universal humanity, the only things they are likely to have in common are their cultural sensibilities. The best advertising contains a "universal human truth", but smart advertisers know this message has to be tailored towards an individual culture at the expense of universal comprehension.
Even if every city street in the world has a Starbucks, and a McDonalds, an Apple Store and a NikeTown, the advertising will be very different. It has to be. As a curious traveler, I'm very thankful for that.
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