Japan has a global reputation as an originator of trends. While that's true in many cases, the global media tend to latch onto the most insane examples that defy any sort of logic. Let's do a quick rundown of some of the more outrageous things news outlets have been trying to pass off as trends in Japan:
• Geeks dating their pillows in public
• Geeks marrying their video game girlfriends
• High school girls wearing panties on their heads [as shown at left]
• Young people injecting saline to create bagel-like shapes on their foreheads
• Girls paying for fake snaggleteeth
• Finally, teenage girls selling advertising space on their thighs
The one thing these examples have in common is this: They are all utter nonsense. But they serve the global narrative of Japan being full of nutcases who will try anything.
The idea of "trends," especially of the Japanese variety, is near and dear to my heart. When I co-founded what is now Mandalah Tokyo, trends were our bread and butter. A core tool of our consulting business is the Tokyo Trend Tour, where we connect clients with innovative companies, experts, shops and individuals. It's a great tool, and there's a lot to be learned from Japan precisely because it's so forward in certain areas.
However, we spend a lot of time deprogramming clients' preconceptions of the Japanese. Yes, there are fads here, and they're different from what you'll find in the American Midwest or Europe. But when some guy tattoos Mitt Romney's logo on his face for $15,000 [as shown at left], no one sees it as indicative of anything beyond his own financial situation (and mental stability).
To paraphrase Yogi Berra, Japanese trends are so trendy that no one follows them. While you can get a few weirdos together to inject saline into their heads, that doesn't make it "Japan's Hot New Beauty Trend" as HuffPo loudly insinuated.
What does this have to do with marketing? It's a heads-up for anyone doing business in Japan: If you let foreign press shape your view of the country, you'll be in for a rough time.
I know that bursting the Japanese trend-bubble might be disappointing, but have faith! There are very real ways that Japan is influencing the world, and we can start with emoji and cute cats on the internet. Laugh if you want, but these are digital/social trends that connect emotionally with people everywhere. If you want a single example of some crazy trend in Japan right now that "everyone is doing" you'll have to be disappointed. Otherwise, you can check out the most trendy products from 2012.
The thighvertising reality
I can't tell you how many people asked me in the last couple weeks about Japanese teenage girls renting their thighs as advertising space for everything from Green Day albums to local bookstores. Yes, there is a PR agency offering this service, and yes, some girls seem to have participated.
But headlines like "Japanese Women Use Their Thighs as Advertising Space" create fake trend hype. "A Handful of Japanese Teenagers Got Paid to Wear Ads on Their Thighs" isn't so exciting, is it?
Let's break this down:
While I am a fan of supple thighs, I've not seen this fascinating new advertising medium in use. My vision is perfect, but I would have difficulty making out the ads in the real world, no matter how hard I stare. Despite being technically analog, these ads are 100% digital! The whole point of them is to get media outlets desperate for clicks (I'm looking at you Daily Mail) to write about them.
There's a word for this: Gimmick.
The agency gets to promote itself (more than its clients), websites get clicks (to sell more ads), teenage girls get a few bucks to waste on panty-hats, and advertisers get exposure in the coverage of the ads themselves. That only works once!
The problem is that all of this perpetuates a view of Japan that is far from reality and caters purely to "journalists" looking for a quick and wacky story that isn't even fact-checked.
If the agency behind this wants ads on thighs to be effective, let's use QR codes and prove it. My phone is ready for this new innovation in T2O (thigh-to-online) technology. Otherwise, it's going to go straight into the bin along with the ad-supported "free underwear" company we blogged about last year which has given out, at this time, exactly zero pairs of underwear.