HAKUHODO AT 100;MAKING JAPANESE ADVERTISING MORE UNIVERSAL;HAKUHODO'S TOP CREATIVE EXECUTIVE TALKS ABOUT THE ROLES OF HUMOR, MARKET RESEARCH AND CONSUMER TASTES IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF ADVERTISING

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Among the many ways Japan and its people are described to the world-diligent, polite, efficient, to name a few-funny isn't often one of them.

It seems nobody bothered telling that to Hakuhodo's Susumu Miyazaki. An artist with a nose for news and a passion for business, Mr. Miyazaki is the top creative executive at the second-largest advertising agency in the world's second-largest economy.

And in a nation as serious about conspicuous consumption as it is about making cars and VCRs, Mr. Miyazaki is on a mission to sell his clients' products by making the Japanese laugh.

From award-winning dinosaurs that outsmart their human predators to mockingly self-deprecating amusement park ads that decry the boredom of a day riding roller coasters, Hakuhodo has joked its way into the upper ranks of world advertising.

The chief humor generator is Mr. Miyazaki, 49, an avuncular bear of a man with a permanent grin etched onto his full face.

"We think humor is very important," he says. "If you cannot make it humorous, then making the commercial itself is difficult."

This commitment to humor put Hakuhodo on the map at Cannes in 1992 when its now-famous Nissin Cup Noodles snared the coveted Grand Prix at the International Advertising Film Festival.

Of course humor isn't the only arrow in Mr. Miyazaki's quiver. Hakuhodo has used a tear-jerker approach to sell long-distance telephone service. And the agency is trying to help Japan figure out "normal" life after the collapse of the so-called "bubble" economy of the late 1980s. It also relies on market research to guide its customers' campaigns and business strategies.

But it is the hapless cavemen, a horde of pre-historic Mr. Whipples-whose problem isn't excessive squeezing but rather an inability to capture their dinner-who are Mr. Miyazaki's signature statement.

Built around the one-word punch line "Hungry?" that is intoned-in English-at the end of each spot, the cavemen series features inept hunters who likely ought to have been gatherers, given that they keep getting outsmarted by dinosaurs, a soon-to-be-extinct species.

Chasing the calm beast on the ancient prairie, the cavemen are caught unawares in one place as the dinosaur performs a neat vertical jump at the edge of a cliff. Guess who run off the cliff under the airborne giant and are last seen suspended in mid-air, high above the ground?

Maybe it would have been easier to heat up some instant noodles.

"It boils down to the fact that from ancient times to today, [people have had] the same desires," reflects Mr. Miyazaki. This became even more important, he says, as fast-food choices expanded for Japanese consumers.

"Now, when you get hungry, a cup of noodles is just one of the alternatives," he says-a dream for ad agencies, to be sure, but a headache for marketers.

The cavemen ads embody another of Mr. Miyazaki's goals: To make Japanese advertising more universal. "We thought that [`Hungry?'] was a concept that could be used worldwide," he says.

Mr. Miyazaki thinks North American and European ads do a better job of conveying thoughts with images rather than words. As Japan becomes more "internationalized," Japanese consumers too will become more accustomed to non-Japanese spots, he says.

He and his staff study the Cannes winners-Mr. Miyazaki has been a judge as well.

"In particular, American and European advertising can be understood without understanding the language," he says.

Which isn't to say one needs to be a linguist to grasp Hakuhodo's spots. One commercial for KDD, Japan's dominant long-distance telephone carrier, shows a girl-next-door character sobbing uncontrollably as her boyfriend heads off for study abroad. The tears flow for so long they seem to drip off the TV screen.

Asked about his shop's creative philosophy, Mr. Miyazaki shifts from comedian to businessman. "Basically, I don't have my own philosophy. This is business, so it changes as time changes.

"I do attempt to express myself; however, I shouldn't force my client to accept my ideas."

But when he has a good idea, he doesn't give up easily. He pitched amusement-park operator Toshimaen for three consecutive years on a playful April Fools' Day print ad that informs readers that coming to their attraction would be a horrible idea.

"The client got angry at first," he says, but eventually ran the ad in 1990. "This idea can be used only once," he adds, smiling.

Hakuhodo's research has aided Toshimaen, an established player locked in a decade-old competition with successful upstart Tokyo Disneyland.

Surveys showed young people were going to the park in greater numbers, and during the week. On Hakuhodo's advice, Toshimaen added more difficult rides geared toward youths.

Like other creatives, Mr. Miyazaki fantasizes about whom he'd like to feature in ads. He dreams of using famous subjects who haven't done commercials before.

Ronald Reagan is high on his list (Mr. Miyazaki clearly doesn't count Mr. Reagan's earlier career as a pitch man).

Others are the three remaining Beatles plus Sean Lennon, "because I like them."

Asked what products he'd like to sell, Mr. Miyazaki turns businesslike again. "Dentsu [Japan's largest agency] is going to look at your article," he says.

He also has a feel for social issues. He once came close to persuading former prime minister Tsutomu Hata to run an apology to Thailand after the Japanese devastated that country's rice sales by reporting false allegations of mice found in Thai shipments.

But Mr. Hata's government fell before Mr. Miyazaki could pull off the campaign.

And even as Japan ages, Hakuhodo's clients are focusing on increasingly discriminating young consumers.

"We don't have so many commercials targeted at older people because they are outside the `volume zone,'*" says Yuzuru Mizuhara, a Hakuhodo creative director.

Marketing to those young people has become even more difficult with the collapse of the bubble economy in the early '90s. The days are gone, says Mr. Mizuhara-a protege of Mr. Miyazaki's-when image was the predominant factor in selling to status-conscious Japanese consumers.

Other areas on Hakuhodo's current agenda include multimedia advertising and the need to explore Asian markets.

Adam Lashinsky is a free-lance writer based in Tokyo.

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