Deciphering Softbank TV Commercial

The following article was written as an assignment for the Introduction to Media Theory class.

Here is a topic that I gave a group presentation in the Media Theory class. It's a bit long, but I hope you enjoy reading it.

1. Background information about the ad
First, I’d like to tell you about the background of the ad since some of you may not know the present mobile-phone business situation in Japan. The ad I'm going to analyze is this.

I put the English translation on it as follows.

This is Softbank's ad for family discount plans. Softbank is one of the three biggest mobile phone companies in Japan. This ad was released on their website, but the same kinds of TV commercials were also made at the same time. It was first shown on TV in June, 2007. Softbank has also used other celebrities such as SMAP, Brad Pitt, and Cameron Diaz for their mobile-phone ads, but the company had to make an ad that related to its new family discount service for Softbank users. The other two competitors also made the same kinds of ads at the same time to attract family users. The family discount campaign started with this ad four years ago and still continues today. So far more than 100 different TV commercials have been made featuring these unique family members.

Let’s watch the first commercial so that you'll get the atmosphere these family members produce (I put the subtitles in English so that you can understand what they say).

2. Breaking down to the elements
Next, let's break this down to the elements.
 ・Medium: it was on their website, but the same kind of ads were also on TV, magazines, newspaper, and posters.
・Targeted audience: Japanese families (parents, children, grandparents, and couples) whose family members may still use a different company's mobile phones.
・Layout: White background with a few sales copies and the portrait of the family. They stand out because of the white background. The color of the background is white probably because the name of the discount plan was called "white plan." The family name “Shirato” or “howaito” also comes from this.
・Mood of the ad: Formal as if the family portrait was shot in a photo studio.
・Commodity being sold: Family discount plans for mobile phone users.
・Elements in the ad: Sales copies and the family members in a formal looking clothes with the company’s logo at the upper right and links to the other web pages on the lower left.
・Locale for the scene: Probably in the photo studio (white background and all the members are posing and staring at the camera in front of them).

3. Analyzing the ad
Now I'm going to analyze this ad and find what it means to the viewers. First, let's see each character in the ad again. Two Japanese women (young and elder) are easily considered as a mother and daughter since the sales copies on the left suggest it. Then why is a black male actor casted as the brother of a family? Does it mean anything to ordinary Japanese viewers? Is there any racial or unconsciously racist perception involved in this ad? In regard to this topic, I happened to read an academic paper that deals with the racial representation in this Softbank ad.
 As the commercials evolved, they continued to challenge viewers' expectations, part of their immense popularity owing to their nonsensical playfulness which presented the character as a straight man in a bizarre fantasy tableau where boundaries of race, ethnicity, and even species no longer apply. - "Race as Ricorso: Blackface(s), Racial Representation, and the Transnational Apologetics of Historical Amnesia in the United States and Japan" (2011) by John G. Russell
It was written by John Russell, who is the professor of Anthropology at Gifu University in Japan and researching the representation of race in the U.S and Japan. In this paper, after examining many racial or sometimes even racist representations in Japan including the examples of foreign talents on TV such as Bob Sapp and Bobby Ologun, Russell says that the black character in this ad is a few notable exceptions from the other stereotyped black male images in Japan such as entertainers, athletes, and criminals. He says, “Aside from his black face, he could be any race” and “what is coded is his non-Japaneseness, and even that is problematized by his Japanese name and un-gaijin-like demeanor.” This analysis coincides with what the actor playing the role in this ad says about his career in his interview.

Click here to his inverview
The African American actor who plays this role “Yoso-Guy,” which means “unexpected” in Japanese,” is Dante Carver who is from New York and now works as an actor and model in Japan. He says he is very careful about which job offers he chooses in order not to get typecast. From my impression, many Japanese like him a lot probably because his character was very new to them, which depends more on his own character rather than on his race. The surveys actually showed that he was voted the most popular male actor in a TV commercial in Japan both in 2008 and 2009. Although there is a possibility that he himself has now become “a new stereotyped black-male figure” in Japan because of the heavy on-airing of the TV commercial series for such a long period, still for many Japanese viewers, he may be recognized as “non-Japanese” rather than “a black male” in the ad.

How about the white dog then? Why is the white dog casted as the father of the family in this ad? According to Softbank, they were looking for a white dog that had a patriarchal figure as the head of the household, but they refused to tell the reason why the father became a dog in the ad. In addition to it, the commercial planner who made this ad said that he wondered if a dog were his father so that it would kindly listen to him and sometimes scold him. However, it doesn’t explain why it should be a dog. Now there is another interpretation of this dog. I have to refer to this idea that widely spreads throughout the Internet today. There are some anti-Korean groups or people who strongly insist that the ad was made to insult Japanese people. According to them, the family setting in this ad such as “children of a dog” is the exact phrase Korean people often use when they insult others just like “a son of a -----” in English. They also say that it is also insulting to cast a black actor as a brother in an average Japanese family due to the reason that many people in Korea still have the negative perception of black people (I’m not sure if it’s true or not). This kind of “conspiracy of Softbank” has been spread throughout the Internet for years partly because the CEO of the company Masayoshi Son is Korean Japanese. It might be true that Son actually did a favor to Koreans in Japan by offering special discount prices only for them and also the fact that he got his Japanese nationality comparatively late in his thirties. Both of them might show that he might have sympathy to Koreans to a certain degree, but these do not mean at all that he was motivated to insult Japanese. The commercial received the prize for the most favorite ad in Japan in 2007 and the series of TV commercial has been aired since then.
Otosan dog dolls
These show that most Japanese do not care or accept the conspiracy and love the character of “otosan” dog (Actually the dog has been used as a mascot character of the ad and its dolls, mug cups, and accessories were made and distributed as the campaign goods). Overall, the dog could be any other animal as far as it is lovely and not a human (actually there are white cat versions of this ad, in which the white cat plays the leader of the local cat society).

Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son
Then what kind of message would this "family image” convey to the viewers? As you look at the ad again, each of them represents the member in a traditional family (parents both father and mother and their children that are a boy and girl) in a family portrait situation. Only the phones they hold represent that the ad is something to do with mobile phones. The sales copies suggest that the family is “unexpected” or unusual from the fact that there are different races and species in there. Even though, they still call themselves “a family.” The message seems pretty clear that there could be a family that consists of different races or even species. If the members call themselves a family, then so be it. This is a very strong statement against the homogeneous Japanese society. Although 98.6% of people in Japan are ethnically Japanese and speak the same language, the forms of traditional family have gradually changed in the recent years. According to the survey in 2010, there are only 28.7% of the households that contain parents and more than one child in the family. The rest have different circumstances at home. In this sense, the ad shows a very conventional family form. On the other hand, the ad also suggests that any one can be a family regardless of race or species. In fact, in the same series of the ad, the director Quentin Tarantino and even a white dolphin were casted as the uncles of the family. It can be interpreted as a suggestion to become more open or tolerant to strangers for the Japanese viewers who still have the stereotyped image of an all-Japanese family (the ads for family discount plans made by the other two mobile giants Docomo and au are very different. In their ads, Docomo depicted mushroom family in cartoon and au an ordinary Japanese family). At this point, it can be said that there could be some kind of intention or message implicitly slipped in the ad from the personal experience of the CEO Son, who has educated in the States and must have experienced hash discrimination in Japan because of his Korean ancestry, that it is the time for many Japanese to become more open to strangers in general.

4. Conclusion
The Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son is well-known as the most successful entrepreneur in Japan for his Internet and mobile phone businesses. He is also known as a very patriotic person who has been trying to reform old Japanese styles in business and culture just like Steve Jobs did. I think it is safe to say that he might have tried to send an implicit and vague, but critical message to the viewers in Japan through this ad that Japanese should be more open to non-Japanese. At least, the conventional family concept that many Japanese viewers still have would, unconsciously or not, force to be shaken by this ad.

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