Advertising Keiko Sei

Since the 1970s, Dentsu Inc., one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world, has been using the following ten strategic instructions on how to turn citizens into its consumers:

1. Make them spend more
2. Make them dispose of things
3. Make them waste
4. Make them forget the seasons
5. Make them give gifts
6. Make them combine purchases
7. Stimulate them
8. Make them see they are out of touch with fashion
9. Make them shop at ease
10. Create chaos

Inspired by Vance Packard’s classic The Hidden Persuaders, yet turning the book’s critical mantra into one of cynical opportunity, these ten instructions have guided ad warriors through the consumer battlefield for decades until the long economic slump in Japan gradually made them obsolete.

Twice as big as its closest rival Hakuhodo, Dentsu controls half of all the airtime in the country. It is also closely linked to the endlessly—until recently—governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been using Dentsu’s market research as if it were a governmental agency—the agency has been deeply involved in government propaganda and it has coupled corporations to the government in much the same way as it does with corporations and the public. All these facts mean that Dentsu is feared by the mass media as well as by various event organizers, and that it is viewed both as the ultimate “string-puller” that can influence any sector of society, as well as a dictator capable of crushing any dissent. So much so that whenever they touch on issues related to Dentsu, the media makers have to remind themselves of this dictum: criticizing the monarchy does not get you killed, criticizing Dentsu does.

Thus silenced, citizens have been “groomed” to be ideal consumers in the Dentsu realm. For decades, an institute under Dentsu has been announcing a forecast of the lifestyle of Japanese society for the coming year, a set of guidelines based on analyses of the underlying sensibilities of the media-influenced public ascertained from exhaustive market research. For the subsequent 12 months, all advertising and event planning was conducted along these thematic lines.1 In a television program about the media landscape in Japan broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK, social critic Shuichi Kato compared Japanese people with the Monkey King of ancient Chinese myth who believed that he had won all his battles until he realized that they had only taken place on the palm of Buddha. Kato concludes the documentary with this sentence: “Japanese people behave as subjective individuals, buying and expressing themselves freely, but in the end they must realize that they are buying, dancing, and enjoying freedom on the palm of Dentsu.”2

In the same British documentary, Karel van Wolferen, the author of The Enigma of Japanese Power, remarks that an advertising giant such as Dentsu “can in fact dictate what television stations broadcast and what they keep off the air. Dentsu directly and indirectly has a great deal of influence through its many subcontractors on what should be kept out of the public eye. If it uses this power it can be very effective. But of course it does not use this power all the time relentlessly; it does not need to do so because it helps to preserve the system through the management of reality in the hands of many components, the citizens.”3

In a 1993 interview, James Harff, former director of the Washington-based PR firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs which worked for Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during the civil war in Yugoslavia, was asked a question about the company’s achievements in getting Jewish opinion on their side, in spite of the memory of Croatia’s activities under Nazism and despite the fact that the aim of the agency was to portray Muslims in Bosnia as “the victims.”

“Our challenge was to reverse this attitude [*of Jewish skepticism toward Croats and Bosnian Muslims]. And we succeeded masterfully. At the beginning of August 1992, New York Newsday came out with the affair of [Serbian] concentration camps. We jumped at the opportunity immediately. We outwitted three big Jewish organizations [ … ] suggested to them to publish an advertisement in the New York Times and to organize demonstrations outside the United Nations. That was a tremendous coup. When the Jewish organizations entered the game on the side of the [Muslim] Bosnians, we could promptly equate the Serbs with the Nazis in the public mind.”4

Harff continued by saying that at the time the great majority of Americans did not have a clue about what was happening in Yugoslavia, let alone where Bosnia was. And the only material available to the agency was the article in Newsday. To overcome this handicap, it decided to target Jewish groups, which in the end proved to be a masterful tactic; the American people started coming across such emotionally charged words as “ethnic cleansing” and “concentration camps” in the press, and an entire political movement emerged. When the fact that the agency had no proof of the validity of the Newsday article was pointed out to him, Harff noted that it was not their work to verify information. As to the responsibility for what the agency had done, he said:

“We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to be moral.”

Another American lobbying and PR firm, DCI Group, which also lobbies for the Republican Party, was hired by the Burmese military junta between 2002 and 2007 to improve its image abroad. DCI’s clients include Exxon, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Google, and AT&T. It has also worked for a mortgage finance company to stop legislation that would have regulated and trimmed it down three years before the government took control of it to prevent its collapse … the consequences of this action can be viewed as one of the complex causes of the recent economic crash.5 DCI was also hired by Microsoft to handle public relations concerning the antitrust lawsuit that had been lodged against it. Through a company called Bates, the British marketing firm WPP ran an advertising operation in Burma until public pressure forced it to close the office in 2003. In 1997, the multinational PR giant Burson-Marsteller (B-M), a WPP member company, helped the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with its CI (Corporate Identity) transformation. On its advice, the SLORC, associated with the bloody crackdown following the general election in 1990, changed its name to SPDC—the State Peace and Development Council—the name that it still uses today. Clients of WPP Group and B-M include British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, Blackwater USA, Monsanto, the governments of Colombia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and in the past they have also worked to improve the image of Union Carbide, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Suharto.

Two top aides to the Republican nominee for president John McCain were forced to resign over their ties with the Burmese military junta after the media disclosed DCI’s involvement with the brutal regime. Even a giant company such as WPP admits that its involvement in Burma was a mistake6—perhaps not so much out of moral guilt but more because the PR firm saw no chance of gaining any public sympathy for a client such as the Burmese regime. In a BBC Hardtalk interview, Sir Martin Sorrel, the founder and chief executive of WPP, talked about the advertising company’s ethics when working for a controversial client such as a tobacco company:

“It might set alarm bells ringing inside my head, but I don’t believe I should be put in a position of making those moral judgments for other people.

The facts, the information are there for people to make their decision. It is a slippery slope. Once you start to make judgments, where do you begin and where do you end?”

In the field of cultural production, advertising occupies a niche that is entirely its own; the reason has less to do with the dissimilarity between cultural production created out of an artist’s inner motivation and work that is commissioned, than with the number of agents between a creator and the work. These include the client company, the advertising agency, the talent/model agency, the legal firm, the production company, and the media. In each of these entities there are people in different positions: producer, media planner, art director, creative director … If content touches a sensitive area, various experts, institutes, associations, committees, civil groups, or NGOs will be brought in to evaluate it. A creator’s talent is therefore judged on the ability to be able to foresee the interventions of these intermediaries and to extract elements from, or add them into, his/her vision depending on the nature of that interference. It may also be judged on the ability to envision an image entirely on behalf of the client; in other words the ability to visualize the input of someone that the author of the work hardly knows in person. That is the reason why a high quality advertisement, and/or its creator, are highly appreciated in the sphere of art in a country like Japan where elaborate forms of expression are traditionally composed in strictly regulated form, as in haiku poetry, for example.

Another distinguishing characteristic of advertising in the cultural arena is its controversial nature, unlike that of any other form of cultural production. No matter what effect they have and no matter how sincere their intentions may be, advertisements are always criticized for luring innocent citizens into taking the opium of consumerism, corrupting consumers’ minds, and making the rich richer by squeezing money out of the poor. These characteristics create permanent irony in this cultural genre: the more beautiful an image of life an art director produces, the more it is treated with suspicion. The suspicion is that “beauty” in advertisements is there in order to create anxiety in consumers of the kind, “I’m not beautiful because I’m not using this night cream → I must use it in order to become as beautiful as the model in the advert.” The fact is that advertising does continue to rely on beauty, unless it happens to be based on humor, and this generates ever-increasing suspicions in the minds of today’s enlightened consumers. It is a result of the link and action between a “vision” and a creative process: corporations are usually careful and they want their customers to regard them as “dream givers” and “happiness providers,” and the “middle men”—the agents—“envision” their clients’ wishes as wanting to be unrealistically happy and beautiful.

Encapsulated in this “vision”-creative process, although the agents involved in the production of advertisement are generally nonjudgmental with respect to moral issues regarding clients as we can see in the examples of DCI Group and WPP and B-M, they become extremely moralistic with regard to the methods of visual and verbal expression.

Suppose Raul Castro decided to adopt Western thinking and hire a PR agency to appeal to the world with the message that under his regime his country would be transformed into a more open society. The agency’s job would be to portray Cuba as a country where every citizen—young and old—lives happily under the sun surrounded by beautiful sea and music. It would select images of a beautiful woman dancing, old people doing tai chi in a park and playing music together with the young. Perhaps Ry Cooder would be called in to assemble the musicians. No images of political prisoners, demonstrations, Guantanamo. The agency might then lobby the UN to sponsor the TV spots to air on CNN and BBC World, and the printed ads to be published in Newsweek and The Economist.

The opposite scenario—for example the Canadian Tourist Board as client and an image of a homeless person as the end product—will not happen, even if the client decides to be adventurous, opting for an advertisement employing black humor.

Oliviero Toscani’s most controversial series of advertisements in the industry’s history—The United Colors of Benetton campaign in the 1980s and 1990s—was born out of his fierce criticism of the contradictory principles of the advertising industry (“Advertising is dead. But it is always smiling at us”; “Advertising has committed crimes—11 altogether”; “Advertising is the catechism of consumerist religion”; “Advertising does not sell products. It sells lifestyle and the social system. Of homogenous quality”; “The advertising agency is a sterilized kingdom, a kingdom of the mediocre.”).7

Once the original “vision” has passed through the hands of all the different agents, homogeneity is the inevitable outcome. Toscani’s use of a dying AIDS patient, the blood-soaked clothes of a victim of the Bosnian War, a new-born child, dozens of colorful condoms and dozens of colorful genitals, would not be possible if the photographer had not worked directly for Benetton and if decisions were not made by two people only: Toscani and the company’s chairman, Luciano Benetton. SUNTORY, the Japanese liquor giant famous for its original and high-quality advertisements employing well-known writers and film directors, has had an in-house advertising section for many years.

It is possible to identify approximately three models of producing advertisements without the use of agencies, mostly by focusing on their cultural implications.


The Benetton model for extremely original and taboo-breaking artistic production. The Benetton controversy and its power to provoke debate had such a massive impact worldwide that their campaign posters have been exhibited in numerous art institutions, including the Venice Biennale and MUDAC in Lausanne. To this day, no company has employed images as controversial as those used by Benetton, perhaps with the exception of Greenpeace.


Advertising in communist states. This is a unique case in many respects. First of all, the only major patron is the government which directly commissions its own PR department or a production company, if one actually exists.8 Secondly, advertising is not regarded as a tool for the corruption of citizens; it has no negative associations as far as the internal logic of the system is concerned. In this case, advertising is not about choice, it is about the celebration of existence (the existence of a product, the government, or us, the citizens).

In communist Czechoslovakia, advertisements were aired in blocks between programs and not during them, so that they never disrupted the broadcasts. The ad reel was then politely introduced, presented and concluded by an animated “egg man.” The nuance of modesty was evident throughout. A typical advertisement went like this:

“Garlic! For thousands of years we have eaten this nutritious vegetable. Let’s continue to eat garlic!

Eggs! Just look at this experiment—not even heavy bricks can break them.”

These advertisements for garlic, eggs, cabbage, salt, and honey, goods that existed in only one or two kinds in the entire country, carrying the message “Let’s eat it,” contributed to enriching the already rich culture of absurdity in this Central European country: if the communist economic plan did not produce any garlic in a given year, the advertisement celebrating garlic would not run, which might have seemed strange to the Western mind, but was in fact logical. After all, if it had been broadcast, it would have been absurd.

The same pattern was seen in shop windows. Most of them would have carried a message such as “winter” in winter time and “summer” in summer time. This technique of reminding people of things they already know in such straightforward language, while creating another perfect stage for an absurd play, also had considerable impact on people’s psyche—when they were reminded of winter in winter and summer in summer, they were also reminded of the eternal status quo.

In advertisements in advanced capitalist countries, absurdity usually occurs in the content, such as pigs flying in the air in an ad for a copy machine, or a husband turning into a cockroach in an ad for insecticide, appealing to consumers that are already bored with a fixed formula (despite the fact that this technique has already been viewed as stale for some time). The advertisements shown in communist countries, however, created external absurdity simply by being so straightforward.


Google AdSense. Both in the United States and in Japan, online advertising is growing rapidly, while printed and television ads are in decline. In the US, revenue from online advertising soared 35% over the previous year in 2006, and 2007 saw a 26% year on year increase.9 Because of the economic downturn, growth slowed down in 2008, but since online advertising still accounts for only 10% of total advertising revenue, there is a lot of room for growth. The situation is similar in Japan—the share of online ads in total advertising revenue is also still only 10%. In 2008 it was the only form of advertising which recorded growth (16.3%); all other forms stagnated.10 In 2009 it is expected to exceed the revenue of newspaper ads, for the first time in history. The format that occupies the largest share in the total online revenue in the US is contextual search engine advertising (41%); in 2007 there was a 40% increase from the previous year. Google tops this segment in a near-monopoly position (70%; together with its rival Yahoo, the two dominate 90% of the market). In Japan, mobile phone advertising is seeing the fastest growth (up 47% in 2008).

By now many of us know somebody in our immediate vicinity who has a blog or website that is generating a modest income with Google AdSense. The greater the number of people who look at your blog, the more money you can earn—the motivation is strong enough for people to make their blogs more interesting and original. And this is all done without the intervention of an advertising agency. In addition, online users do not get the feeling that advertisements impose on their lives, as was seen in their traditionally ambivalent relationship with television commercials (“I must rush off to the toilet now!”), and instead they can believe that they have some choice, because it is up to them whether they click on an ad, or not.

Is this physical clicking giving citizens a sense of independence and democracy? Critics do not think so, citing the monopoly of Google in search engine and online ads. Christine Varney, the next head of the antitrust division of the new US government, said in a speech given at the American Antitrust Institute in 2008: “For me, Microsoft is so last century. They are not the problem. I think the US economy will continually see a problem, potentially, with Google, who I think so far has acquired a monopoly in Internet online advertising lawfully.”11

Is Google replacing advertising agencies? With this government intervention, Google Inc. now has no choice but to hire ever larger numbers of PR agencies, lobbyists and lawyers. As Karel van Wolferen suggests, agencies will be here with us to help to preserve a system through the management of reality, which is in the hands of many components, in the hands of us, the citizens.


1 / Recently, as Dentsu is transforming this practice into a more suitable style for the sensibilities of the new generation, the industry’s no. 2, Hakuhodo, is still carrying on with this practice, in the last few years in a slightly different format however; until 2006 the annual report was called “Lifestyle Prediction” and since then has been replaced with the title “The Dynamics of Life.” The Lifestyle Prediction in 2006 was, for example, “Discharging Communication,” predicting more people would use blogs, SNS, and HP. The theme for the 2009 Dynamics of Life is “The Third Stage of Contentment—The Renovators of Society,” predicting that an individual’s effort to renovate society, which has been overlooked by government and corporations, is under way in a time of uncertainty.

2 / Media Show, broadcast on Channel 4 in 1990.

3 / Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation, Vintage Books, New York 1990.

4 / Interview by Jacques Merlino, associate director of French TV 2 in 1993, published in Lessons of Kosovo: The Dangers of Humanitarian Intervention, Broadview Press, Calgary 2003.

5 / Another controversial client of DCI is Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), one of the country’s largest and most influential trade associations. DCI was commissioned to ensure positive press coverage on the 2003 Medicare Act, which would favor drug industries over the citizens’ genuine need for health care.

6 / Broadcast on Hardtalk, produced by BBC World, in 2004.

7 / Oliviero Toscani, La pub est une charogne qui nous sourit, Hoëbeke, Paris 1995.

8 / The regime in East Germany, not long before the final demise of communist rule, started employing a Western advertising agency.

9 / PriceWaterhouseCoopers, “IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report” (PriceWaterhouseCoopers on behalf of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, 2008).

10 / Dentsu, “Annual Advertising Revenue Report,” Dentsu, Tokyo 2009.

11 / James Rowley, “Antitrust Pick Varney Saw Google as Next Microsoft,” Bloomberg News (Feb. 17, 2009), &sid=a2IPm_JGgE5w&refer=home.