Thursday, October 18, 2007


When you first start working in Japan, you tend to spend a lot of time on trains. Since you can't read anything, you tend to focus more on the pictures than the messages they're trying to convey. One thing I couldn't help but notice during my first year was that all the ads seemed to almost always feature foreign models despite the fact that the intended customer base was entirely Japanese and the companies selling the products were Japanese.

I asked my students at that time why there were so few Japanese models featured in advertising and they gave a variety of answers. Some of them said that foreign models were more expensive and it was prestigious to feature them. Others said that foreign models caught the attention of the Japanese more than Japanese models. Still others said that they were considered more attractive than Japanese models.

The latter sentiment was actually one that one of my private students expressed recently. While I can't say her viewpoint is the same as all Japanese people's (and in fact, I'm nearly certain it's not), it does fit in with what I was told 17 years ago by students at Nova. My student felt that Japanese faces were too "flat" and broad and that foreign faces had more definition and that made them more appealing. Of course, she also felt she looked "plain" and I'm pretty sure most foreign men would find her fairly attractive. I think her perceptions may have reflected a bit of the grass being greener thinking.

Getting back to the foreign models though, I arrived around the time of the end of the economic bubble so companies were still burning excess monetary fat on ridiculous luxuries and paying more rather than paying less for everything. Fast forward about 10 years and the bubble had truly burst. The ads on the trains then started featuring far more Japanese models. I'm pretty sure this was linked to saving money but I've often wondered if there is a psychological link as well.

I hadn't thought much about how the ads used to overwhelmingly feature foreign models until a few days ago when I received a catalog with my credit card statement. I generally don't look much at these but the cover being dominated by a smiling blond woman piqued my curiosity. When I looked through the catalog, I noticed there was not one Japanese model in its pages. In fact, nearly every page is dominated by smiling, blue-eyed blond foreign women with the odd shot of a brunette here and there (and a couple of pages of square-jawed pretty boys). Seeing this catalog made me wonder if advertising was going full circle or if this all foreigner approach is specific to the underwear business. ;-)


Helen said...

I often pick up the Nissen catalogue, especially the one for larger sized women (now that's a change in the last 10 years here...when I came, there was no such thing!). The models are mostly Japanese, except for the underwear section. I'm not sure why that is!

kuriharu said...

Two thoughts:

1. Are foreign models more expensive? I thought they were used because they were cheap.

2. It seems most Japanese only want to see celebrities in ads, on game shows, etc. Nobody wants to see a "nobody" on TV or in a shampoo commercial. I've never really understood this.

Shari said...

Helen: I don't buy clothes in Japan at all so I didn't know that. It is interesting though that the underwear section is foreign models! It's not like Japanese models are bashful!

Kuriharu: 1. I can't say for sure but my students said they were pricier and the law of supply and demand would dictate the same. Fewer foreigners means they can charge more relative to the plentiful number of Japanese models. It makes sense from a market point of view.

2. I think that there are plenty of unknowns in commercials but the famous ones are certainly highly-sought after if the companies can afford the huge price tags for them. Just the other day, there was an ad for "dai job" magazine featuring two gaijin monkeys who weren't famous. The more pedestrian ones don't tend to get ran for as long or feature in as many print ads, probably because they have to get their money's worth from those expensive celebrity ads.

Thanks to both of you for commenting!