What North American Companies Can Learn From Japanese Ad Campaigns

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If you’ve ever seen a Japanese ad or commercial, you’ve probably watched it and said, “wtf is this” — and you’re not alone.

Having just spent a month in Japan, I was struck by the stark difference between Japanese and North American advertising. Their ads often feature people in costumes, anthropomorphic items and animals, and characters making silly or exaggerated faces and sounds.

Aka, it's the complete opposite of most of the marketing campaigns I've seen here in North America.

As someone obsessed with marketing and storytelling, I loved being immersed in a different culture and seeing how Japanese brands market their products and services.

In this post, I’ll explore how North American companies can find more engaging and memorable ways to connect with their audiences by embracing silliness and being weird the way Japanese brands do.

Let’s start by comparing some ads:

Cup Noodle Japan

Predictably, Cup Noodle is a brand of instant noodles popular in Japan. I saw ads for these on subway trains all over the country, and they often involved people in weird situations interacting with a life-size cup of noodles.

Let’s start with a Japanese Cup Noodle commercial:


Now let’s take a look at an ad for instant noodles from another Japanese company that’s targeted at North Americans, Ottogi America Inc.:

Night and day, right? While some aspects of the Japanese commercial might not necessarily land with a North American audience (the grandpa being held by a Cup Noodle angel at the end is a weird vibe), the ad is fast-paced and unpredictable and basically the opposite of what you’d expect from a company selling cups of noodles.

God of War: Ragnarok

I didn’t actually see it while I was in Japan, but I wanted to include it because it does a great job of showcasing the contrast between how North Americans market something and how they do it in Japan. Check it out:

I read the Google Translate description of the video, and I’m still not 100% sure what’s going on here.

Now let’s compare it against the American trailer:

I actually love both versions of these ads, but the contrast is pretty stark: the North American version relies on celebrities. It comes across as more satirical (and tame) than the Japanese version.

It also portrays playing the game and dressing like Kronos as the men are trying to be better dads to their kids — framing GoW, Kronos’ beefy physique, dressing like a Viking, and playing a violent videogame as “masculine.”

The Japanese version, by comparison, contrasts what arguably sounds like a children’s song against a violent, pretty macho video game.

SoftBank’s “White Family”

I don’t remember where or how I discovered this series of ads back in the early 2000s, but these weird, quirky commercials stole my heart and probably set me up for the love of Japanese marketing that I still hold today.

The long-running campaign, which focused on the (Shirato) White Family headed by Otousan (“Father”), who is a white dog, was one of the most successful and long-running ad campaigns in the country’s history.

As of 2012, the campaign had reached 133 “episodes,” but here are a few to give you a sense of what they’re like:

(Also, don’t sleep on the Tommy Lee Jones cameos!)

As you can see, very few of these commercials actually talk in detail about the phone company or the plans themselves. Mostly they’re little vignettes about the family and the things they’re doing.

The commercials are weird, but they’re also charming and memorable.

Now let’s look at a North American ad that also features a talking animal:

Did you notice that Geico’s ad followed a lot of the same tropes that the SoftBank ads did? 

By featuring an unusual animal who talks (and who is kind of abrasive to the humans around it, just like Otousan), they can create a quirky, memorable ad that promotes their offerings without being too heavy-handed about it.

Differences Between Japanese and North American Ads

Now that we’ve looked at a few examples, let’s break down the key differences between ad styles according to research:

Style Differences

  • Japanese commercials are less informative than American commercials.
  • Japanese commercials emphasize product packaging and availability, while American ads emphasize price, quality, and performance.
  • Japanese commercials use a soft-sell approach with short messages, songs, celebrities, female voice-overs, and still graphics.
  • American commercials use a hard-sell approach with long messages, animation, male spokespeople, and humour.

Cultural Differences

  • Japan is a ‘high-context society’ whose communication needs are answered through familiar symbols and icons rather than logical recommendations.
  • The US is a ‘low-context culture’ requiring Western rhetoric and logical tradition to communicate thoughts and actions.

What Can North American Brands Learn?

Be Weird

As you may have noticed, a key element of Japanese advertising is being silly and weird. 

Japanese ads often feature bizarre imagery (see below for an example), unusual characters, and unexpected scenarios. By embracing the unexpected and breaking away from traditional advertising tropes, companies can create more memorable and engaging ads. Weirdness can also help companies stand out in a crowded advertising landscape.

Key takeaway: Don’t be afraid to lean into weird, memorable characters or make them a bit annoying or unlikeable for the sake of the joke.

(Here's an example of some weird ads for pistachio snacks I saw in Niigata.
Why is that pistachio so smarmy?!)

Use a “Soft Sell” Approach

Japanese commercials often use a soft-sell approach with short messages, songs, celebrities, female voice-overs, and still graphics. 

This approach can be more subtle and less aggressive, which can be more appealing to some audiences.

Key takeaway: Avoid being too heavy-handed. Tell a story that resonates or excites your audience where the product you’re promoting comes second to a memorable ad.

Use (and Create!) Familiar Symbols and Icons

As we saw in the SoftBank ads, Otousan became something of a cultural icon in Japan. By incorporating or creating characters who can become cultural symbols (think the polar bears for Coca-Cola), campaigns become more easily recognizable and familiar to audiences.

Experiment with Pattern Interrupts and Pacing

As we saw with the Cup Noodle commercial and how a few SoftBank commercials cut between scenes, the Japanese aren’t afraid to jump around. 

Cutting frequently between scenes is called a “pattern interrupt” and is an effective tool (also employed by YouTubers) to keep the audience’s attention focused on whatever they’re watching.

Many Japanese ads also end abruptly or in weird and unexpected ways. Not knowing where the plot is going is another way of keeping viewers engaged right until the very end.

Key takeaway: Don’t be afraid of experimenting with pacing and surprising your audience with a twist at the end of your ads.

Play With Satire

Although both the God of War: Ragnarok examples played with satire, the North American one played it safe by linking the GoW series to “manliness” and easily identifiable gender norms.

The Japanese ad, on the other hand, threw gender norms right out the window and went with an ad that could have easily been mistaken for a kid’s commercial. 

While the North American ad is fine (I liked it, personally), the Japanese sing-song ad stands out more because it almost feels like it’s making fun of the ultra-macho GoW series instead of leaning into a predictable masculine theme.

Key takeaway: Don’t be afraid to lean into satire and juxtapose different elements of an ad against the product you’re promoting.

Get Inspired for Your Next Ad Campaign

Japanese advertising offers a refreshing alternative to traditional advertising, and North American companies can look to these types of ads for inspiration.

So, the next time you’re creating an ad campaign, consider adding a little bit of silliness, embracing the unexpected, and making fun of yourself and your product. Who knows, you might create an ad that people will remember for years to come.