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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009
Popularity's dead! Rebellion against brands starts now
Recently I ran into a friend who works at a TV station in Tokyo. The conversation turned to Johnny's Jimusho, the most powerful talent agency in Japan, whose stable of male singers has dominated television for almost two decades. When I asked her if she had run into any of Johnny's stars, she said she probably had, but it was difficult to tell. The young men she saw at work all looked alike.
The popularity of the Johnny's brand has led to the ubiquity of the Johnny's look, which is difficult to describe because it is so indistinct. All you have to do is turn on the TV and you'll see it. Even young male stars who don't belong to Johnny's look as if they could, but once you reach that level of understanding, you have to consider the possibility that maybe Johnny's itself is pursuing an ideal that transcends calculation. In the 1980s, Johnny's was the only talent agency that traded exclusively in cute boys. At the time, cute girls were the focus of attention. Now that the attention has shifted to young men, Johnny's gets the credit — or the blame, depending on how you look at it. But in any case this uniform look for male TV personalities — the androgynous features, the deliberately tousled hairstyles, even the relatively short stature — attests to the entertainment industry's pack mentality.
The real question is: Did the entertainment industry foist this image on the public or did it reflect the public's desires? A professor at Kobe Women's University, Tatsuru Uchida, would probably say it's the former. According to an article that appeared several weeks ago in the Asahi Shimbun, Professor Uchida conducts a survey every year among women in their 20s, and since 2003 he has noticed a shift in interest away from anything that respondents believe is media-manufactured. In particular, he finds that they "don't trust" brands anymore.
Such a backlash isn't unusual, but Uchida seems to believe that it points to a more long-lasting social change. Another professor, Teruhito Ushiro, who teaches at the Fukui Prefectural University, coined a term for what it is that these young people object to. He calls it "famiresu gensho," which is shorthand Japanese for "family-restaurant phenomenon," a situation where everybody likes the same thing because there is no "risk of failure." It's like a menu in a family restaurant, where the dishes have been carefully selected to please everyone and not offend anyone.
A corollary of this theory is that when something is branded by the media as being popular, an increasing number of people are automatically suspicious. Two months ago, the press reported long lines outside McDonald's branches on the first day the Double Quarter Pounder went on sale, but it was later revealed that many of the people waiting on line were hired to be there. What's interesting in this case is that no one was really shocked by the revelation, which means that people tend to take media-wide pronouncements with a grain of salt. All cultures have their subsets of people who reject the status quo out of hand, but Ushiro sees this development as an attitude arising organically and not as a response to some dedicated provocation.
The phenomenon receives a more arcane interpretation from architect Kenzo Sumi, who was also interviewed by Asahi. Sumi defines a "brand" as a "form of information" that people "repeatedly" request. Brands are popular because they meet expectations that have been cultivated in some way. The brand is a "contract" between the maker and the buyer. In architecture, this means that the client asks for a certain style of building that a particular architect can deliver, but Sumi sees more and more people who are "suspicious" of all brands. They want something unique, something where all the elements come together in an unexpected way.
In this regard, Sumi believes that Tokyo has lost its "charm" as a world capital. "Tokyo used to embody the idea of Asian chaos," he tells Asahi, "but not any more." That idea is now better represented by Shanghai and Beijing. Tokyo has become commodified to the point where it lacks distinction. Ushiro says he has noticed that his students no longer "aspire" to live in Tokyo. They would rather remain in their hometowns, where life, they believe, is more genuine.
Five years ago, the female respondents of Uchida's research stated that their interests were in brands, but last year almost none of them said that. An unusually high portion now say they are interested in "poverty" and "East Asia." Uchida interprets this to mean that these young women are more concerned about the real world, specifically "how people lead dignified lives in societies where basic human needs are not provided for." He points to the unlikely success of the Japanese film "Yami no Kodomotachi" ("Black Market Children"), a drama about Japanese aid workers who fight human trafficking syndicates in Thailand, as proof of this change in sensibility. Though the movie did feature some well-known actors, Uchida thinks its success was due to its theme.
This doesn't mean that Johnny's is going out of business any time soon, but it does probably mean that the future in terms of what sells and what doesn't will be less predictable. If young people mistrust the media because it only deals with what it deems is popular, then they may end up ignoring the media altogether.
And it isn't just the media that will have to pay attention to this phenomenon if it wants to retain any sort of relevance. Ushiro uses the family restaurant model as a metaphor, but it turns out the family restaurant industry itself has noticed this trend. Business is way down compared to "specialty" restaurants, and last week it was reported that at least two chains are looking closely at their menus. In order to survive, sometimes you've got to risk offending someone.