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Sunday, April 29, 2012
Otosan, Japan's top dog
By EDAN CORKILL
Upper House election night, 2010. All over the country people are watching television and waiting to see if there will be an upset as the results from polling stations slowly trickle in.
Suddenly there's a cut to newsreader Shunji Miyagawa in what appears to be a special live broadcast: "In news just to hand," Miyagawa says, "we can confirm that first-time, independent candidate, Jiro Shirato, has secured a seat."
Photos of Shirato and his rival running for a seat in the House of Councilors flash on the screen.
Oh, but wait. That's odd. The Shirato photo is of a snow-white dog ...
By this point, millions of TV viewers are likely to have cottoned on to what was happening — since it wasn't just any dog that was staring out at them, looking resplendent in a straw hat but slightly uncomfortable about all the attention his "election victory" had sparked.
In fact, the new canine councilor was the dog usually known as Otosan (Father), the unlikely patriarch of an otherwise normal human family and the star of one of the most successful advertising campaigns Japan has ever seen.
Yes, this faux "live" broadcast, which aired on multiple channels to coincide with coverage of the real election results that night, was in fact the latest in a long-running series of TV commercials for mobile-phone provider SoftBank.
And indeed, Otosan's dabble in politics was just the latest in a series of adventures he had embarked on with the inevitably half-hearted support of his wife Masako (played by Kanako Higuchi), daughter Aya (Aya Ueto) and black Western son Kojiro (Dante Carver).
Since the June 2007 launch of the first "Shirato Family" commercial — as the ads are known, from the dog's surname — the still immensely popular series has now reached its 133rd episode, and its contribution to SoftBank's rise from absolute newcomer in the mobile-phone business in 2006 to now being poised to surpass KDDI's au as the nation's second-largest carrier, has been immense. (NTT DoCoMo is No. 1)
SoftBank's head of marketing, Tatsuro Kurisaka, wouldn't put a precise figure on the value of Otosan to the company — which is officially known as SoftBank Mobile — but he did say that the ad series' ratio of cost to value would be in the realms of "1:20, or 1:30."
If so, that's seriously impressive. Akiko Sekido, from Tokyo-based advertising analysis firm CM Research Center, said such figures are "top class." In fact, she explained, they are all the more remarkable in view of the fact that corporate Japan has, in recent years, changed tactics to focus less on simply barraging people with ads and more on the cost-effectiveness of each campaign.
But that's not the only indicator of Otosan's success.
CM Research Center conducts monthly surveys of 3,000 randomly selected adults, asking them to identify TV commercials they liked that month. SoftBank's "Otosan" ads have topped most of those polls for the last five years — so earning the center's "Brand of the Year" accolade every year from 2007 through 2011.
"No other series of ads has come close to achieving that level of popularity," said Sekido.
If there are any "newshounds" among our readers, it's likely they are now wagging their tales in delight at the celebrity of one of their ilk. But perhaps they are also tilting their heads to one side in that endearingly confused doggy expression, thinking: Why a dog? And why just one dog, in a family that is otherwise all human?
Otosan himself can be said to have three fathers: Creative director Hiroshi Sasaki; TV commercial planner Yoshimitsu Sawamoto; and SoftBank's well-known president, Masayoshi Son — the value of whose input the two full-time ad men readily acknowledge.
The story began in 2004, when Sasaki arrived at Son's office with a pitch. At that point SoftBank was a successful information technology services company, Son was its ambitious president and Sasaki was a veteran creative director with dozens of hit commercials to his name, including the Suntory "Boss" canned-coffee ads (for which he would later use American actor Tommy Lee Jones). One year earlier Sasaki had resigned from advertising behemoth Dentsu to found his own company, Shingata.
"Computer-maker Apple made a famous commercial using the slogan 'Think Different,' in which all of these people who changed the course of the world were shown, like Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Mahatma Gandhi and so on," explained the 57-year-old Sasaki. "I did a mock up of the ad myself, and added a picture of Son at the end."
Sasaki's objective was to convince Son to give him total control of SoftBank's corporate identity, which the president had indicated earlier he wanted to revamp. And it worked.
Soon enough, Sasaki had commissioned a graphic designer, Takuya Onuki, who came up with the now-familiar silver SoftBank "=" logo. He also started pulling a team together to start working on TV campaigns for the company's first foray into the mobile-phone business, which followed its purchase of the ailing Japanese branch of U.K.-based Vodafone in 2006.
That's when things started going to the dogs, literally rather than metaphorically. As SoftBank's Kurisaka recalled, Sasaki had a meeting with Son one day in early 2007 and asked him if he knew what the most popular animal in Japan was.
"Sasaki said that 60 or so percent of people say their favorite animal is the dog, while 30-something percent like cats and then the percentages fall way down to ducks and things which are in single digits," Kurisaka remembered. "Sasaki felt there was great potential working with dogs, as you would be giving yourself an immediate head start in winning over the public."
Sasaki explained there was another reason, too. "Dogs don't talk, so if you want them to speak you have to add a voiceover in afterward."
That was important because he soon found that his boss, Son, was as demanding as he was ambitious. "This was a time when the competition between the mobile-phone carriers was fierce, so Son would often come up with new mobile-phone fee plans and new campaigns, and we just couldn't keep up if we stuck to the normal pace of commercial production," he said.
Sasaki's solution was to take a whole lot of footage of several dogs — nothing special, just dogs being doggy — and then add in pertinent and timely information by way of a voiceover. Commercials in which the dogs would be sitting around chatting about SoftBank's latest plans could be made both quickly and cheaply.
As Sasaki mentioned, things were moving fast. At around the same time, he was also producing a line of SoftBank commercials that were at the other end of the budget spectrum.
In one series, Hollywood actors Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz were shown walking down the street chatting on their SoftBank phones while rock 'n' roll played on the soundtrack.
However, the speed at which everything was moving also spelled trouble. SoftBank's servers were creaking under the increased traffic from new subscriptions, and the Japan Fair Trade Commission blew the whistle on the company for using the phrase "¥0" in its ad campaigns. That was, the commission determined, a misleading statement, since the ¥0 phone charges to which it referred came with many conditions that were written in almost illegibly small type.
Sasaki determined it was time for the company to show a little humility in the wake of its glitz and glitch, and so when SoftBank came to him with a fee plan that would make calls between close members of the same family completely free 24 hours a day if they were using SoftBank phones, he suggested it simply be called the White Family Plan.
"You know, instead of 'Gold' or 'Platinum' plan, you'd call it 'White,' " he explained. "Actually I thought it would only be a short-lived thing." However, the plan exists to this day — in part because it became the foundation on which Otosan and his ad series was built.
One of the keys to Son's business philosophy is that you should make the most of what you've got — and that was essentially the framework within which the Shirato Family was born.
"We had achieved some popularity with the few (talking) dog commercials we had done in early 2007," explained Kurisaka. "So Son wanted to include a dog in the new White Family Plan ads."
Meanwhile, as chance would have it at that time, SoftBank also had on contract the young actress and singer Aya Ueto, who was the face of another of the company's enterprises, Yahoo! BB. She would have to be involved, too.
And there was another piece of the puzzle: a black American named Dante Carver, who had been an extra in some of the few commercials that Sasaki made for Son while the Vodafone brand was still in use.
"We made this ad where there was a meeting of executives at a mobile-phone company and they are poring over a phone made by one of their rivals," Sasaki explained. "I wanted to convey the idea of a cutting-edge IT company, and that meant having some foreigners standing in the background — one of them being Carver."
In the ad, the executives discover to their surprise that the phone's screen can swivel 90 degrees, to which Carver says, somewhat out of the blue and in broken Japanese, "Kiite imasendeshita" ("No one told me anything").
That phrase is known to every Japanese person as being the stock excuse used in business, the bureaucracy and beyond to evade accepting responsibility — and coming from Carver's mouth it struck such an amused chord nationwide that his character was soon repeating it on other Vodafone ads, too.
Hence the composition of the family gradually fell into place. There would be Ueto, the daughter, who would work in a SoftBank shop, her brother, played by Carver — and then there would be a dog, somehow and somewhere in the mix.
Enter Yoshimitsu Sawamoto, a 45-year-old employee of Dentsu whose work as a CM (commercial) planner involves actually thinking up the content of TV ads and writing the scripts.
It was Sawamoto who had created the initial voiceover dog ads for Sasaki, and he now came up with the idea that the father in the White Family Plan ad family could actually be the dog.
"We needed something surprising," Sawamoto told The Japan Times, "a quirk, that would get viewers' attention — and, I mean, think about it, you could hardly make the mother a dog, could you?"
Son approved — though he made sure one of his favorite actresses, Higuchi, would play the role of the mother.