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Finding Meaning in the Muddle:
Adapting Global Strategies to
Advertising in Japan
WHEN A JAPANESE advertising agency develops campaigns for
multinational clients, cultures clash. Conflict, confusion and
misunderstanding complicate the already complex processes involved in
the production of advertising. Can anthropological theory illuminate what
is going on? The answer is "Yes." Concepts of field, habitus and social
drama developed by Pierre Bourdieu and Victor Turner do shed light on
this highly fraught cross-cultural encounter. Only one critical element is
missing: effective leadership. [Advertising, Japan, leadership,
globalization, applied anthropology]
WE LIVE IN A WORLD where advertising is pervasive. In this
proposition, moreover, "world" has a literal referent. Advertising with its
Siamese twin, popular culture,1
is one of the great shapers of the visible and
material world of urban life worldwide. It is one of the core elements in the
"contemporary culture of consumption" that, says John Sherry, requires both
"sensitive anthropological investigation" and "anthropologically sensible
intervention" (1995:3). Advertising is, in particular, one of the major sites of
cultural intersection where human beings from different cultural backgrounds
struggle over how to define and present, not only the objects in which they
trade, but also, therefore, themselves (Appadurai 1990).
These struggles can be especially fierce when multinational corporations
develop advertising for "local" markets outside the countries in which their
headquarters are located. Differences in language, cultural style and business
paradigms complicate relationships already fraught with competing interests. A
critical issue for the author of this essay, an anthropologist who has been
involved in advertising for many years, is how to theorize these struggles from
an anthropological perspective. It is also an issue with intensely personal and
242 City & Society
The Anthropologist and the Adman
I am an anthropologist who has worked for 13 years as a copywriter and
creative director for Hakuhodo Incorporated, the second largest advertising
agency in Japan. I am now a partner and principal in The Word Works, a
company that supplies copywriting, translation and presentation support
services to Hakuhodo and to other large Japanese and multinational
organizations doing business in Japan. A large part of our business is helping
our Japanese clients to sell their ideas for domestic advertising in Japan to
While working at Hakuhodo I found myself involved in pitches to Coca-
Cola and to BMW. In both these instances, a Japanese advertising agency was
asked to handle one of the world's most prestigious multinational brands.
Differences in language, cultural style and paradigm aggravated the normally
tense relationship between advertiser and agency. The struggles that ensued
were indeed fierce. The question I pose here is this: Can anthropological theory
contribute to our understanding of these two cases? Or, more generally, to our
understanding of the processes involved in transforming global advertising
strategies into advertising in Japan?
In brief, my answer is, "Yes." I will argue that ideas takenfromthe work of
Victor Turner and Pierre Bourdieu do shed light on what was going on in these
two cases. In the shadows that remain, however, is a subject that anthropologists
rarely touch—the importance of leadership.
Coke and BMW
Both Coca-Cola and BMW are multinationals with very strong, very clear
ideas about their brands, which are, of course, among the world's most famous.
In Japan, however, each faced a serious marketing problem. For Coca-Cola the
problem was demographic. Worldwide, the primary consumers of soft drinks
are teenagers. In Japan, where the birthrate has been falling continuously since
the '70s and this year reached 1.43 (well below the 2.08 required for population
replacement), the number of teenagers is falling. One strategy for maintaining
sales is to use line extensions to appeal to older target segments. Our job was to
launch Caffeine Free Diet Coke and appeal to diet and fashion-conscious
women in their 20s and 30s. The commercials we produced feature a slim, sexy
young woman wearing a red minidress who is busy shopping and trying on
clothes. In the final cut she has changed into a white evening gown and meeting
a tall handsome man in a black tuxedo. To make a long story short, the
commercials seemed to work. The product enjoyed a tremendous shinhatsubai
(new-on-sale) spike. The problem would be repeat sales. Japanese consumers
Advertising in Japan 243
still, it seems, do not like the taste of aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in
For BMW, the problem was image. During the '70s both BMW and its arch
rival Mercedes had been seen as the ultimate in luxury cars, representing a
standard far surpassing their Japanese competitors. During the late '80s, as the
bubble economy expanded, BMW had introduced the 3-series, a compact,
relatively inexpensive line that put owning a BMW within reach of many
nouveaux-riche Japanese. With sales expanding rapidly, BMW had cut back on
brand advertising, putting its money instead into expanding its dealer network
and building a new corporate headquarters in Makuhari, a "21st century
development project" located to the east of Tokyo in Chiba prefecture. When
Hakuhodo entered the scene, the bubble had collapsed, sales were down, and the
3-series, now the prototypical BMW in the Japanese consumer's mind, had
come to be regarded as "the Roppongi Corolla." Mercedes had retained its
image-leader position. The prototypical Mercedes was the chauffeur-driven
600-series sedan favored by top executives at major Japanese corporations.
Meanwhile, too, Japanese auto makers tempted by the bubble had launched
their own luxury lines. Examples included the Toyota Lexus, Nissan Infiniti,
and Honda Acura.2
BMW found itself behind its arch rival and increasingly
only one of the pack of luxury car competitors.
Mercedes had chosen Dentsu, Japan's largest agency, to manage its account
in Japan. BMW had then turned to No. 2 Hakuhodo. The agency's problem was
that while it had the account (and was thus earning media commissions), it had
been unable for more than a year to sell any creative work to BMW Japan. I was
put on a newly formed team whose mission was to turn this situation around.
We tried, we sold a few ads. A few even won awards. A little over a year later,
BMW Japan, whose sales had continued to deteriorate fired the president and
marketing manager who had chosen Hakuhodo, and the agency lost the account.
What to Make of These Cases?
The immediate temptation is to focus on the ads created for these campaigns
and to raise the question my Japanese colleagues at Hakuhodo almost inevitably
raised when their multinational clients asked them to accept the clients' global
strategies: Are the ideas in question sufficiently Japanese? Shouldn't they be
replaced by ideas that are more Japanese in substance and flavor?
The anthropologist in me notes the implicit appeal to nihonjinron, the
nativist theory of Japaneseness that asserts the uniqueness of the Japanese race
and its language and culture. The experienced adman notes more cynically that
NIH (Not Invented Here) is the usual negative response of local agencies
worldwide to global advertising campaigns. The appeal to inerradicable local
difference salves the pride of local creatives who detest the idea of becoming
244 City & Society
mere translators of others' ideas. If effective, it also has the material advantage
of generating work for them and their agencies to do—original work, which is,
of course, more highly paid than adaptation.
I note, too, that the anthropologist shares with the adman's clients a strong
desire to know what works in Japan and to know in particular what sorts of
imagery and appeals speak most movingly to authentically Japanese emotions.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. For a sense of the scale and
complexity of the research needed to articulate the range of possible answers,
consider, for a moment, the following remarks from the July 1997 issue of
Brain, one of Japan's leading trade publications for professionals in advertising
and marketing. The issue reports the results of the 35th annual Tokyo
Copywriters Club awards.
Nakahata Takashi, who chaired the panel of judges, begins his report as
The total number of works submitted in the regular division was
4,198. Of these, 1,395, or 33.2%, passed the first round of screening.
After the final screening, 738 remained in contention. There were
more entries than in previous years, and the competition was fierce.
Akiyama Sho, chairman of the Tokyo Copywriter's Club, comments on the
shinjin (newcomer) awards.
Advertising is not movies. Nor is it writing fiction. Advertising
progresses by finding its own modes of expression. One has only 15
seconds in which to speak. The message must be spoken in a single
line. Beneath its surface, however, is a huge intention, the product of
planning, imagination, calculation. Advertising is only the visible
peak of marketing. Thus, as a form of expression it is different from
movies and fiction. It might be described as "saying through labor in
the middle of the night things which cannot be said in the light of
He continues with an inventory of the types of appeals a young copywriter
might want to consider:
Realistic. Psychological. Exciting. True. Humorous. Raw. Gentle.
Nagging. Unexpected. Human. Artificial. Factual. Relaxed. Insightful
Poisonous. Helpful. Playful. Despairing. Hopeful. Hilarious. Blind
spots. Strange. Mathematical. Revealing. Lonely. Familiar.
Manhattan. Each is a possible approach... (1997:33).
We might also note that entries in this contest are divided into thirteen
categories by industry.
A. Liquor and tobacco
Advertising in Japan 245
B. Food and beverage
C. Department stores, supermarkets, specialty stores, fabrics and
D. Cosmetics, Pharmaceuticals, science, personal products
E. Home electronics, AV equipment, computers, communications
equipment, office equipment, telecommunications services.
F. Precision machinery, production materials, housing and real estate.
G. Shipping, transportation, tourism
H. Automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, motorboats, tires, gasoline, and
other transportation related products and services
I. Recreation, sports and sports equipment, events, concerts
J. Financial institutions, insurance, government, education
K. Mass media, publishing
L. Naming, catalogs, pamphlets
Professionals will note that a two-fold system of classification is at work here.
This list is, on the one hand, a typology of sponsors with distinct
communication needs and separate regulatory environments. Liquor and
tobacco advertising is legally confined to messages to adults. Food and
beverage advertising is often directed at teenagers or at housewives concerned
about what they feed their families. This same list is, on the other hand, a
typology of skills. Thus, for example, photographers who specialize in food or
fashion are in very different businesses from those who are experts in
automotive or sports photography. Copywriters who write in the high, serious
tone preferred by financial institutions are a different breed altogether from
those who use trendy slang to pitch soft drinks. Both may find themselves at sea
if asked to write about high technology.
Focussing on Process
Avoiding, then, the siren call of symbolic analysis, I will throw us into the
whirlpool of the everyday life of advertising. I will focus here on the process by
which advertising is created in Japan and on the special problems that arise
when a Japanese agency works with a multinational client. For anthropological
inspiration I have turned to two authors whose similarities have, I think, been
too much neglected: Victor Turner and Pierre Bourdieu. Both write with a clear
awareness that conflict and contradiction are central components of human life.
Both draw our attention to politically structured fields of human activity and to
the processes that take place within them. Bourdieu's concept of habitus is an
apt description of the dispositions that shape the behavior of actors involved in
creating advertising. Turner's social drama provides a useful framework for
describing what goes on.
246 City & Society
To Turner fields are "the abstract cultural domains where paradigms are
formulated, established, and come into conflict" (1974:17). Bourdieu's field is
more concrete, a bundle of relations that is both an objective distribution of
power and material resources and the momentary configuration of persons
within it as seen from their own phenomenological points of view. It is, in
simpler terms, like a soccer field, which can either be seen objectively from the
press box looking down or subjectively by the player s who feel themselves
pulled here and there as the game develops (1992:17-20). Both authors draw
our attention to processes in which there is genuine drama, both comedy and
tragedy, and in which, moreover, actors are not mere automatons, acting out
What, then, of habitus? In Bourdieu's formulation, "habitus consists of a set
of historical relations 'deposited' within individual bodies in the form of mental
and corporeal schematics of perception, appreciation, and action" (1992:16).
Habitus is not a set of rules to be followed automatically. Nor is it a purely
rational faculty that calculates every decision. It can be described as a set of
dispositions invoked when the actors in a field find themselves in particular
positions. Like soccer players racing for a ball while trying to keep track of both
teammates and opponents, they must act on imperfect information and have no
time for protracted calculations.
The operations of habitus amount to a practical rationality in which there is
room for mistakes as well as adaptive response to changing circumstances. In
the case of advertising the knowledge brought into play is more a collection of
rules-of-thumb than a systematic theory. The habitus in question always
includes a good deal of habit along with clearly thought out ideas. In the endless
search for novelty, flexibility is essential (McCreery 1995). Habitus suggests
important truths about the ways in which people involved in advertising work.
Turner's social drama provides the dynamic framework we need to understand
the competitive presentation—the central and most dramatic of the games their
The Presentation as Social Drama
In Turner's formulation the social drama has four stages. It begins with a
breach that disrupts everyday routines and calls into question the central moral
principles on which social life depends. The breach leads to a mounting crisis
during which the actors in the field take sides and line up with one or another
group. The crisis evokes redressive action by those with a stake in keeping the
breach from doing irreparable damage. The last stage is either reintegration or
fission. The parallel steps in the world of advertising are orientation that starts a
project, the mobilization and interaction of the staff who will carry it out, the
Advertising in Japan 247
moves to fix directions that occur as deadlines draw near, and, finally, the
Strictly speaking, the summons to an orientation that starts a new project is
not a breach of regular, norm-governed social relations.3
It is a normal step in
the business transactions that link the agency and its client. Why then does it
feel like a breach? The answer, I think, is simple: Each and every presentation is
a crisis that may either strengthen or destroy that relationship.
A relatively small and routine piece of business can be handled without
great strain. The agency comes up with a few ideas, the client chooses one for
implementation, relations between them continue to be smooth. The larger and
more important the piece of business in question the stronger the feeling of
crisis becomes. The worst situations are those in which the agency-client
relationship has already soured to the point that the agency is forced to re-pitch
the account in competition with other agencies.
Account executives move back and forth between the agency and the client,
testing the waters, trying to learn more about the client's desires, determining
who the key people are who will have to be persuaded to let the project go
ahead. If the situation is serious, senior people are brought into play,
demonstrating the agency's commitment and opening the way for changes in
staff or direction should these prove necessary. Here is where the multi-agency,
multi-client situation that is common in Japan makes things somewhat different
than they are in other parts of the world.
Everything turns on the presentation. If it goes well, and the client buys one
of the agency's ideas, it functions as a rite of reintegration, reaffirming the
smooth running of the agency-client relationship. If it goes badly, it signals a
genuine breach and the cycle repeats until either a solution is found or the
breach becomes irreparable.
Preparing a Presentation
The process described here is the one with which I am familiar from
working at Hakuhodo. My impression from talking with others involved in
advertising in Japan is that it is, in fact, similar to what goes on in other
Japanese agencies. This impression is confirmed by Brian Moeran's A Japanese
Advertising Agency (1996), which describes in detail life at one of Hakuhodo's
The curtain on the social drama goes up when the client speaks to the
account executives in charge of his account and asks that the agency make a
presentation. The project in question may be routine: the production of a leaflet.
It may also be enormous. It would not be unusual for a major new product
launch, combining TV with radio, print and promotions, to cost two or three
billion yen (roughly speaking, 20 to 30 million U.S. dollars).4
248 City & Society
budgets for large accounts range into the hundreds of billions of yen, and when
one of these is at stake the tension levels are high.
The account executives will return to the agency and assemble a project
team from the agency's marketing, creative, and promotion divisions. A large
project may also involve staff from the PR and events divisions. If the project in
question is part of a long-standing and smoothly running relationship, the
team's members will already be assigned to the account. If what is at stake is a
pitch for new business or an existing team has lost its credibility with the client,
it may be necessary to form an entirely new team. Once the team is formed, its
members are taken to an orientation meeting with the client. Here the client's
representatives attempt to explain what they have in mind.
Following the orientation, the team will meet to confirm what they think
they have heard at the orientation, to develop a schedule and to start
brainstorming. It will almost inevitably turn out that the different members of
the team have heard or noticed different things. Everything that
deconstructionist critics have said about the plasticity of texts and the
multiplicity of possible readings applies in spades to this process.
In the brainstorming phase, the members of different departments tend to
work separately. Creatives will be working on ideas, the marketers on the
marketing plan, the promotions and PR staff on their own separate projects. The
account executives run from one group to another, trying to keep track of what
is going on. They will also be talking to the client, pre-testing rough ideas in an
effort to prevent the project team from heading off in what are plainly wrong
directions. In the brainstorming phase the groups from the various departments
may be internally fragmented, as individuals advance ideas and attempt to
mobilize support for them. Younger people timidly offer suggestions. Older,
more senior people bark, growl, brush them off and, then, sometimes, begin to
smile. At Hakuhodo I have heard senior creatives say to their juniors, hitoban
hyakuan (one night, a hundred proposals). The idea is that instead of struggling
to come up with one or two good ideas, they should generate lots of ideas which
can then be filtered by the group.
Almost all will be rejected. The few that survive will be developed through
further discussion, first within the creative group and then with the team as a
whole. As deadlines draw near, the various groups involved in the project gather
for whole-team meetings where everyone participating is present. These often
become marathon sessions in which the various groups struggle to reach a
consensus on which proposals to present and how to structure the presentation
It is frequently early in the wee hours of the morning on the day that the
presentation is made that it all finally comes together. The team then staggers
off red-eyed and adrenalin-hyped to present its work to the client. If the client
buys what is offered, the day ends tired but happy. More often, however, the
client says, "Well, maybe this...or that..." and it's back to another marathon
session working on the revisions requested.
Advertising in Japan 249
Alternatively, the client who is seeing presentations from several competing
agencies remains stone-faced. The team is left in high anxiety until word of a
decision is received. This may take several weeks. Meanwhile there is other
work to be done. (The members of a team rarely have the luxury of working for
only a single client and always have other projects waiting.)
Language, Culture and Aggravation
Putting together a major presentation is social drama on a large scale. When
all the parties involved are Japanese, there is still plenty of room for conflict and
confusion. When, moreover, key personnel on the client side are non-Japanese
the potential for muddle rises exponentially. Linguistic and cultural differences
magnify misunderstandings. There may also be major differences in the
business paradigms that the two sides bring to the table.
The Japanese language is notoriously difficult for non-Japanese to learn,
and non-Japanese executives rarely have time to learn it well. Even those who
are able to conduct routine business conversations in Japanese may be baffled
by the words produced by Japanese copywriters whose business it is, after all, to
push the limits of the language in an effort to find something fresh to say.
Typically, the Japanese agency will present its work in Japanese,
accompanied by an English translation. The translation may be poor and
clumsy, destroying the sense and sensibilities that make the original exciting. It
may also be too good: more interesting in English than in the original Japanese.
The non-Japanese executive will turn to his Japanese staff for advice. One
executive I knew described the result: "If I show it to ten Japanese, what I'll get
back is twenty opinions."
Like the dominant symbols described by Turner in his writing on ritual, ad
copy is multivocal. Deciding on "the meaning" is often difficult, even for native
Japanese experts. When large amounts of money are at stake, clients may then
turn to research companies for focus groups or theater tests with subjects from
the market segment targeted by the advertising. Even then the results are far
Linguistic difficulties are compounded by cultural expectations. These only
rarely, however, involve mistakes at the "Don't you realize that Japanese are
group-oriented?" or "When they say hai they only mean 'I'm listening' not
necessarily 'I agree'" level. Most of the non-Japanese executives with whom I
have worked are sophisticated international business people. They have read at
least some of the now voluminous literature on doing business in Japan. They
have, in addition, had its messages reinforced by interactions at their clubs and
chambers of commerce with "old hands" involved in similar types of
250 City & Society
The more critical difficulty is that, between lack of linguistic facility and
their being busy people, non-Japanese executives are simply unable to keep up
with the huge standing wave of constantly changing new information that is
Japanese popular culture. How do you know which celebrities are in or out, the
details of political or financial scandals, the latest in teenage fads and jargon,
what's hot in cars, computers or mobile phones? If you are Japanese, the answer
is simple. You scan the advertising in commuter trains, read newspapers and
one or more weekly magazines, listen to radio, watch TV. Critics may complain
that there is too much overlap in stories and the ways in which they are covered,
but, as one of my students at Sophia University pointed out to me, the result is
that media function as a kind of "extended neighborhood," where everyone
knows what's going on. Everyone, that is, but the non-Japanese executive who
is forced to make decisions without the feel for what is going on that the
Japanese from his agency and staff take for granted.
Rephrasing these remarks in Bourdieu's terminology, we see that the non-
Japanese executive lacks the habitus his Japanese agency colleagues take for
granted. Not knowing where to look and unable to understand what he sees, he
has no way of grasping the constantly changing structure of the field. He is like
a soccer player who not only plays clumsily. While trying to keep his eye on the
ball, he finds it almost impossible to predict what the other players will do.
When Paradigms Clash
Finally, then, we come to differences in paradigm. Two, I think, are
especially important. The first concerns the form of presentations, the second
the role of account executives.5
It is, perhaps, a consequence of a Japanese education, with its emphasis on
cramming and regurgitating large amounts of information. One should also note
the reading habits cultivated by rapid scanning of comics and weekly magazines
in which layouts are, to Western eyes, extremely busy and invite the eye to dart
here and there across a jumble of characters and images instead of reading
smoothly from left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Whatever the cause, the fact is that
materials prepared for Japanese-style presentationsflagrantlyviolate the advice
found in Western guidebooks on how to prepare presentations.
The latter remind us that Western executives see themselves as busy people
and that presentations should, thus, be kept as simple as possible. Charts and
diagrams should be presented individually, each on a separate slide or overhead.
Text should, as much as possible, be limited to five lines with no more than
seven words per line. In a Japanese presentation, it is not unusual to find slides
with complex structures of boxes and arrows, multiple charts and masses of
text. When asked why, Japanese planners reply that they want to: 1) allow the
client to see all of the information and logic that goes into a recommendation;
Advertising in Japan 251
and 2) demonstrate the effort that has gone into its preparation. Both contribute
to anshin, a feeling of confidence and security. The impact on Western
executives tends to be bafflement, boredom, or rage: "Aren't we paying these
people to think? What in the hell do they think they are doing? I don't have time
What may, however, be even more disturbing for the non-Japanese
executive is the role played by Japanese account executives. The role
expectations on the side of non-Japanese brand and marketing managers who
work for large multinational corporations are clear. The account executive is
expected to be an active partner, consultant, and leader. In contrast, the Japanese
account executive may seem too passive, to lack ideas, to be unable to get
things done. These judgments are confirmed by presentations at which Japanese
account executives open the proceedings with formal greetings, then sit back
and take no active part as creative, marketing or media staff present their work
and respond to the client's questions and critiques. Their behavior contrasts
sharply with that of Western-agency trained, non-Japanese account executives
who make their teams' presentations and bear the brunt of discussions
In the process imagined by the non-Japanese manager, the ideal account
executive is someone with an insider's knowledge of the client's business as
well as local market conditions. He will be proactive. His services will include a
constant stream of fresh ideas and information that help his client develop the
product and marketing strategies that the client will present to his own bosses.
When these are authorized, they will work together to write the briefs which
spell out the specific tasks assigned to other agency staff to implement.
When, however, a Japanese agency deals with a Japanese client, both the
account executives involved in day-to-day business and their counterparts on
the client side are likely to be relatively young and inexperienced. Thus, in
addition to basic linguistic and cultural difficulties, the non-Japanese manager
who expects to be dealing with experienced, senior people is likely to find
himself dealing on a daily basis with people who seem amateurish and may not,
in fact, know a great deal about his business. They are typically too junior to
force their client's views on senior staff from other agency departments.
Their role in the process, as they see it, is coordinating the efforts of the
experts from other departments whose business it is to prepare plans and
presentations and defend them in discussion with the client. If the client is
Japanese and the client's representatives are not happy with what they see, they
will speak to the agency's account executives backstage, after the meeting. They
will then be able to pass on the client's dissatisfactions in a face-saving manner.
In the worst case—when the client is totally disgusted—they can make
arrangements to change the other agency staff working on the account, without
involving the client directly in messy confrontations. Faced, then, with non-
Japanese clients who are likely to erupt in meetings in a confrontational style
that erodes agency team morale and presented with direct questions they are
252 City & Society
unequipped to answer, the Japanese account executive is likely to make a poor
showing. Now the deficiency in habitus is on the Japanese side.
Returning once again to Bourdieu's metaphor, here, too, the soccer player is
clumsy. But now he is so concerned with keeping an eye on the other players
that he often loses sight of the ball.
It Takes a Leader
With these thoughts in mind, lets us return, once again, to our cases, starting
first with the launch of Caffeine Free Diet Coke.
Coca-Cola has been firmly established in Japan since shortly after World
War II. Older Japanese may remember being handed their first Coke by an
occupation-era GI. Their children have grown up in a world where there have
always been Coke vending machines on the streets where they live. More
important, for our purposes, is the realization that Coca-Cola advertising is a
firmly established and highly regarded genre. It is, in other words, an integral
part of Japanese culture. Coca-Cola campaigns are talked about in the popular
as well as trade press and regularly rank high on lists of favorite TV
commercials. In setting out to create a commercial to launch Caffeine Free Diet
Coke, my Japanese colleagues were playing in a familiar field: their habits and
their habitus served them well.
In contrast, the team working on BMW found itself in a strange field where
their habitus made their play clumsy. They were shocked when the newly
appointed marketing manager at BMW Japan told them that BMW's chairman
had said flatly that he didn't care if 99% of the public didn't like his
advertising—they couldn't afford his cars. What value, they asked, could there
be in owning a high-status car if everyone didn't recognize its value? They
were interested when shown reels of classic BMW advertising produced in the
U.K. What they found impossible to duplicate was the in-your-face
competitiveness tempered with subtle wit that makes the British commercials
delightful to British viewers. If they tried humor, it came across as crude,
vulgar, juvenile. If they focused instead on the core proposition, their work
became heavy and boring. We needed to find a uniquely BMW voice that would
work in Japanese. When we lost the account, we hadn't succeeded.
There was, moreover, another problem: The structure of the team itself and
the lack of effective leadership. When Hakuhodo had won the account it already
had several car accounts: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Suzuki. In financial terms all
but the last were far larger and more important than BMW. More important still,
the agency's top experts in automotive advertising were already committed to
these other accounts. The team assembled for BMW was composed of
individuals seconded from several different divisions, whose primary loyalties
lay with other teams. We were, also, all of a similar age: in our 30s and 40s. No
Advertising in Japan 253
one of us was obviously senior to the others. And since all of us had other
demands on our time, none of us was eager to accept the responsibilities
attendant on being the leader the group. Personally, I was put off by the constant
tension and stress the position would have entailed. To my Japanese colleagues
the prospects for success seemed low. And none was happy with the prospect of
daily interaction with the German marketing manager to whom we reported on
the client side. That would have been too hazukashii and muzakashii—too
embarrassing, too difficult. Throughout the time that we worked together on this
account, the lack of effective leadership made it much harder than it should
have been to reach a consensus on what we were doing.
Leadership is not often mentioned in anthropological analyses, especially
those which deal with Japan. Its importance was driven home to me by
comparing my experience in working with the BMW team to working with the
Coca-Cola team. There we had a very effective leader indeed. His effectiveness
was partly, of course, a matter of what Bourdieu calls social capital. His
personality was also important. Where one leaves off and the other begins is
something I cannot say.
Paul Guilfoile is half-Japanese. The son of an American father and a
Japanese mother, he grew up in Japan. His father had had a long and
distinguished career in business, and Paul, along with his brothers, seems likely
to match his success. What Paul brought to our business was, on the one hand,
the ability to interact comfortably with Coca-Cola's non-Japanese executives,
Coca-Cola's Japanese middle management, and Hakuhodo's Japanese staff. He
combined the ability to think strategically with bulldog-like attention to details
and—this was most unusual—the willingness to put himself on the line to
protect the other members of his team. "If anything goes wrong," he said, "I'll
take the heat."
When I asked Paul where he had learned his management philosophy, he
answered, "The United States Army." He had joined the army in a fit of Oedipal
rebellion and had wound up as the white Sergeant in charge of a mostly black
squad at Fort Benning in the state of Georgia. It was there, he said, that he
learned about cross-cultural communication, learned to think strategically, and
internalized the military ethic that assigns priority to mission, unit, and self in
What I do know is that Paul's habitus/personality served us well. We
survived the confusion that followed the orientation. We pulled together on
time, and this particular presentation strengthened the agency's relationship
with its client. Paul knew the field; he kept his eye on the ball and responded
with great agility to the changing state of the game. With the right leader in
place, the process worked—just the way that Victor Turner said it should.
254 City & Society
The concept evoked here in which advertising and popular culture are linked,
complementary, but distinct domains is taken from Fowles (1996).
For ease of reference all are mentioned here using their overseas names.
Here I must thank Ruth McCreery, who pointed this out to me.
Assuming an exchange rate in the neighborhood of 100 yen/U.S. dollar.
For an earlier version of this argument which addresses what to do about the
problems, see McCreery (1994).
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