TOKYO (AdAge.com) -- Japan has a well-deserved reputation for coming up with off-beat commercials -- think skiing ostriches in spots for Japan Railways a few years ago -- but it turns out they're just getting started.
Dentsu, the world's largest ad agency and by far the dominant shop in Japan, is setting up the Dentsu Design Ninja Project Team, a group of 22 art directors dedicated to creating wacky designs and ads. These "ninjas" don't carry daggers (although being creatives, they'll wear a lot of black), but their mission is steeped in local culture, specifically that of Kansai, a southwestern region that can claim to have the most fun people in Japan.
Since client conflict isn't usually a big issue in Japan, Dentsu works for most of Japan's biggest marketers. One way Dentsu manages its huge size is to create units offering specialized services to advertisers. These include Gal Labo (short for gals' laboratory), which analyzes trends associated with young Japanese women, a Mobile Art Lab that creates ads to run on cellphones, and Social Design Engine, a new unit that does campaigns designed for social-media sites.
With the new Ninja team, Dentsu wants to leverage design capabilities cultivated from the irreverent humor and down-to-earth approach of Kansai residents, who share a distinct and unusual communication style in a region of 23 million people that includes major cities such as Osaka and Kyoto.
"In their daily lives, they communicate with each other with their unique dialect in friendly, funny, laughable and relaxing ways all the time. It's very natural for them to make jokes and tease constantly. It is fair to say that they are recognized as [Japan's] fun-lovers," said Dentsu's Tokyo-based spokesperson Yuko Nakamura. The design ninjas will "utilize and apply the communication culture to create advertising."
Dentsu's decision to create the ninja design team there reflects new trends in Japanese advertising, such as a boom in laid-back mascot characters, an increase in business opportunities attributable to a product's design capabilities, and creating buzz through in-store visual merchandising.
In fact, Dentsu's creative team based in Kansai is the driving force behind those trends through the creation of original characters rich in individuality and -- a must for Japan -- cuteness.
The characters include the Pon de Lion mascot for the Mister Donut chain whose mane is shaped like a donut; the Puccho-kun character for candy-maker UHA Mikakuto Co. who has his own Twitter account, @pucchokun; and a panda seal that represents the food producer Oyatsu Co.
Kansai style also turns up in the agency's TV spots. One for glass cleaner Soft99 Corp.'s Fukupika line of cleaning cloths starts with a suburban husband cleaning his car with loving care and turns into a break-dancing routine including his entire family.
Another commercial for Dr. Spa's Rehab Baths opens with a typical spa ad scenario, a pretty woman relaxing in a bath. Then she starts a rapid-fire regurgitation of old Japanese men. The ad ends with the tagline, "Exorcise your inner geezer."