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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008
We're just playing ball
It's an open secret that TV news shows tend to go easy on big advertisers in their reporting. In the many tributes to journalist Tetsuya Chikushi, who died two weeks ago of lung cancer, no one mentioned that he was a heavy smoker. The dangers of cigarettes were never covered on his nightly TBS show, "News 23," and it seemed to be no coincidence that Japan Tobacco was one of the show's sponsors. JT was even a sponsor of TBS's memorial special for Chikushi.
With the economy in the state it's in, broadcasters will likely be even more skittish about saying anything that might be taken negatively about companies who advertise on their airwaves. Hiroshi Okuda, former chairman of Toyota and currently a senior adviser to the nation's No. 1 automaker, tapped into this fear with comments he made on Nov. 12 as a member of a panel looking into the current national pension mess.
"The media's bashing of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has been too much," he said. "And I feel like retaliating." The media outlets that reported this remark have taken the word "retaliation" (hofuku) to mean that Toyota will pull advertising from TV stations and publications that supposedly partake of this bashing.
The fact that few media reported the remark attests to the confidence behind Okuda's threat. Toyota's worsening financial situation in the wake of slumping car sales and the rise in value of the yen has been covered by the press with the kind of alarm you normally hear in the reporting of natural disasters. As goes Toyota so goes the nation, these reports imply.
Toyota spent ¥100 billion on ads in fiscal 2007, and the company has announced that it plans to reduce advertising costs by about 30 percent. According to Kinyobi magazine, advertising revenues for all commercial TV stations in Japan were down 10 percent during the first half of this year, a figure that actually sounds better than it is since TV ad sales received a boost with the Olympics. The real bad news is in the profit figures. The free magazine R25 has reported that for the second quarter of 2008, TV Tokyo saw a drop in sales profits of 69 percent compared to the same quarter last year. Nihon TV's drop was 62 percent. And those are Tokyo operations. At regional stations the situation is even worse.
Some stations, such as TBS, are already looking into other means of making money, such as real-estate management. In any case, according to Kinyobi, advertising sales departments throughout the country are now "aggressively" soliciting ads from industries they traditionally shunned, particularly makers of health supplements and pachinko machines.
In the past, TV stations didn't accept ads from health-supplement makers because of fear of possible lawsuits. These supplements tend to promise amazing results without any government-sanctioned proof to back them up, so anyone who gets bad results after using them could presumably sue a TV station for false advertising.
Pachinko commercials, which used to be aired almost exclusively in the wee hours, now dominate prime time. TV stations' reluctance to accept offers from pachinko companies in the past had nothing to do with legal questions and everything to do with image. Though pachinko is a huge money-maker in Japan, its associations with gambling turn a lot of people off, and what is more surprising about the ads is not so much that they are being aired so frequently but that they are licensing famous names and images.
Fans of late film director Akira Kurosawa, for instance, have criticized his son Hisao for allowing "The Seven Samurai" to be remade and shown on a small screen attached to the front of a new pachinko game. The ire seems a bit overdone, but it provides an indication of the kind of reaction pachinko provokes in some people. So far, I haven't read of any negative reaction from the fans of film and pop star Yuzo Kayama, who has clearly licensed his image and voice for a series of pachinko games called the Wakadaisho Series, also the name of his famous string of feature films in the 1960s.
Enka singers, pop stars and actors in historical dramas have all recently lent their likenesses and names to pachinko machines. The pioneer in this brave new world of cross-platform PR was the hit Korean soap opera "Winter Sonata," the producers of which made a deal with a pachinko maker who obviously thought that star Bae Yong Joon's legion of middle-aged Japanese female fans would flock to their nearest pachinko parlor to check out the merchandise.
And that, in fact, is the concern some people have. These ads clearly mean to cultivate new customers for pachinko. Regular players don't really care whose face adorns the machines they play as long as those machines pay out. But another outcome of the worsening economy is that more people play pachinko. One assumes the loss of discretionary income would be bad news for the pastime, but the opposite seems to be true. People who are underemployed have more time on their hands, and the possibility of making money at pachinko lures them to the parlors. The increase in advertising being bought by pachinko game makers also reflects the increased fortunes of one of the few industries that isn't being hurt by the recession.
Ironically, most of the pachinko manufacturers are located in Aichi Prefecture, the home of Toyota. It is conceivable that employees whom Toyota will presumably lay off could find jobs at pachinko factories. In that regard, pachinko is the ultimate domestic industry. The machines are made in Japan and pachinko is only played in Japan. On the other hand, many people of Korean background are involved in the pachinko business, and it's been reported that some manufacturers have family connections in North Korea and channel profits there, but we can probably assume TV news won't be covering that aspect anymore.