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Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009
Cheers to women drinking on their own terms
On July 31, an organization called Shufu Rengo, along with a conference of groups that address alcohol-related issues, sent a letter to liquor-industry associations containing a "request" to enforce "self-regulation" of television commercials targeting women.
The letter cited a recent survey of 64 alcohol-related advertisements. It found that 38 of the advertisements featured people "drinking alone," among which 22 were female. In one TV commercial, a young woman was "singing and dancing under a blue sky," while in another a woman "drank on her terrace." What Shufu Rengo, which I will translate as the League of Housewives, found disturbing was that the women were shown "drinking happily during the daytime."
These two ads were all over TV last summer. In the first, popular young actress Kyoko Fukada is seen on a white-sand beach belting out an old Seiko Matsuda hit while holding a can of Kirin's Hyoketsu chuhai (Japanese alcopop). In the other spot, equally popular young actress Aoi Miyazaki sits on her balcony admiring the weather while drinking plum wine. Her silly behavior earlier in the commercial indicates that she's probably had one too many.
Suggesting inebriation has been standard operating procedure in Japanese alcohol ads for as long as there have been alcohol ads, which is slightly different from the situation in other countries. In a letter to the health ministry, the League pointed out that in Europe there are laws that regulate alcohol advertising, while in the U.S. makers of distilled spirits do not advertise on TV and beer makers never depict people actually drinking. Japan, the League goes on to say, has no government restrictions for alcohol ads, and industry self-restrictions are way behind those in the West.
The letter is saying that these ads would never be allowed overseas. Moreover, the concerted push toward females seems to be having an effect. The League claims that there has been a rapid increase in the percentage of women drinkers in their 20s and 30s in recent years, and that more junior high school girls have experimented with alcohol than have junior high school boys.
But viewed from a different angle, these ads, or, more exactly, the ones for beer, could be deemed progressive. Beer commercials in the West remain one of the last bastions of sexism acceptable in advertising. Women tend to serve men beer rather than drink it themselves. A panel set up by the American brewer Coors found that the reason only 13 percent of British women drink beer is that ads in the U.K. effectively "discourage" women from ordering beer in pubs.
It may sound counterintuitive to say that an advertisement sells independence of thought — the purpose of most ads is to get viewers on the bandwagon — but some of the newer Japanese beer ads targeting women are effective because they isolate the act of drinking from any distracting social contingencies. Not only are these women not serving beer to men, they are also not sharing beer with men, or with other women, for that matter. The decision to have a beer is presented as nothing more than a spontaneous personal desire for the brand in question.
The presentation of someone drinking alone seems to be taboo in commercials overseas, but for years now Japanese ads have shown men enjoying a beer in the privacy of their homes, usually after dark but in the daytime as well. If this sort of recreation is less acceptable for women, it's because of the image of the "kitchen drinker": full-time homemakers who hit the bottle out of boredom and loneliness while their husbands are at work.
The League found it disturbing that in the ads cited women were drinking "happily." For beer ads, the commercial that ignited this trend was the one with stage actress Rei Dan for Suntory's Kinmugi malt beverage. In some of the earlier spots, Dan seemed almost too happy, standing in the sunshine and shouting exuberantly. The campaign was a success. Since then, brewers have utilized more mature-looking female celebrities, as opposed to idols, who tend to shill for sweet liquor drinks. Fifty-something screen star Kaori Momoi, draped in blue velvet and lit with floodlamps, sells Kirin's new malt beverage Hop no Shinjitsu; while 33-year-old freelance announcer Kyoko Uchida quaffs Kirin's Koku no Jikan like a frat boy. Veteran actresses Hitomi Kuroki and Yuko Takeuchi have also done beer commercials.
The ad that has made the biggest impression is the one for Ebisu Beer featuring former idol Kyoko Koizumi. When this particular campaign started, it featured three celebrities: Koizumi, actor Tadanobu Asano, and YMO drummer Yukihiro Takahashi. Over time, Takahashi vanished, and Asano's spots have become less frequent. Koizumi's, on the other hand, have become more varied and nuanced, even though nothing happens. She sits on the ground drinking deeply of her beer with a smile on her face. After finishing the glass, she says to herself in her famously chipper voice — meaning with no guilt whatsoever — "one more," and stands up to fetch another can. In one particular ad she is clearly basking in the sun.
Everyone in Japan knows Koizumi's situation. Divorced and childless, she has become increasingly admired as a serious actress without compromising her idol appeal. What these commercials present is an older woman who is beautiful, contented, successful and, most importantly, free.
The League probably hates the Koizumi campaign, since it makes drinking in the daytime — and not just one beer — all the more enticing. But there is a difference between the Ebisu ads and the ones they mentioned in their letter, which stressed the giddiness of youth. The idea of girls being seduced by demon rum is bound to make anyone a bit worried, but by the time a woman reaches Koizumi's age she's old enough to know her limitations. Whether or not she stays within them is her own business.