Have you ever felt uneasy about gender expression in advertisements? Discussing the current state of Japanese society as seen through advertising – SDGs | SPUR

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Mika Kobayashi (left)

Mika Kobayashi Graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Osaka University, and completed the graduate school at Kyoto Institute of Technology (doctoral degree). She plans lectures, workshops, training courses, and exhibitions on photography and gender representation at various schools/institutions in Japan and abroad, and writes and translates, contributing to magazines and web media. She is a part-time lecturer at Tokyo Zokei University and Kyushu University. Her books include “Observation of Advertising from a Gender Perspective'' (Gendaishokan) and “A Theory of Pregnant Women's Art: Capturing the Pregnant Body'' (co-author/Seikyusha).

Aisako Tsuji (right)

Asako Tsuji ● A cross-border creator who advocates social creativity and works in a variety of fields, from advertising to product production, with two core principles: “Creating businesses that are ideologically and socially relevant'' and “Creating works that are concerned with worldviews.'' She handles creative direction in a wide range of genres, including real events, product planning, and brand production. In spring 2019, she launched the “Ladyknows” project, which focuses on women's empowerment and healthcare. Since the fall of 2019, she has appeared regularly on the news program “News Zero'' as a Wednesday partner, and is challenging herself to approach social issues as both a creator and a sender.

Advertising expressions have become more diverse due to structural changes over the past 15 years.

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—In the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of cases in which gender expression in advertisements has been criticized and brought under fire. What kind of issues do you have regarding gender expression in advertising?

Aisako Tsuji(below,Tsuji) I founded my company in 2019, and in that year I launched a project called “Ladyknows.'' It was during this period that I began to wonder if there was something I could do from within the advertising industry, and my output gradually increased. In the past few years, I feel that the advertising industry has been changing rapidly in terms of gender expression, but some companies are trying to use this as an excuse, like pinkwashing. Also, while the number of companies that want to deliver messages is increasing, there are also people who are afraid of not touching it because they don't know what the right answer is, and I feel that we are polarizing.

Mika Kobayashi(below,Kobayashi) I started observing advertising around 2017. I started seeing many advertisements for hair removal salons and beauty clinics on the train, and I felt something strange about them, so I continued to take pictures, write about them, and analyze them. Since around 2018, the word “SDGs” has appeared frequently in advertisements, and advertisements recruiting volunteers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have increased. Amid such social trends, I think there are an increasing number of advertisements that convey the feeling that they are doing something good, while the definition of “diversity” is still vague.

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—There have been big changes over the years.

Kobayashi In the past, advertisements were placed in the “four major media'' of newspapers, television, magazines, and radio, and the commercial songs were songs that everyone could sing along to. Nowadays, targeted advertisements are displayed on each smartphone, and people of different ages, genders, and areas of residence often see completely different advertisements. The structural changes over the past 15 years have been enormous. Moreover, I believe that there is a generational gap in understanding within the advertising industry, and communication between advertisers, advertising agencies, production companies, and consumers is not going well, which is causing the controversy.

Tsuji I spent my school days abroad, so I grew up without really experiencing Japan's gender bias. When I started working and was in charge of projects for customers close to my own generation, such as night pools and tapioca, I saw that Wide Show and weekly magazines had started making fun of young people's trends, half a week behind the trends. Did. The same goes for “Instagrammability,'' but making fun of young women's trends has become entertainment. When I looked back at the advertising industry after all this confusion had accumulated, I realized that there were expressions created based on gender roles all over the place, and that this had become the norm. For example, in a cooking ad, a woman stands in the kitchen and a man in a suit holds a business card. I have come to feel strongly that such advertising expressions may be reinforcing “stereotypes.” The advertising industry is said to be a 7 trillion yen industry. In this context, I am working under the banner of “creative activism,'' hoping that I can express things that break down prejudices, rather than expressions that create stereotypes, even if it's just the things I'm involved in.

Image 4: I was confused by gender expressions in advertisements.

KobayashiThe advertising industry has actually returned to being a 7 trillion yen industry for the first time in 15 years. If you think about it, the amount of time spent on a piece of content is completely different between advertising 15 years ago and now, and the principle of the attention economy, which focuses on how to grab attention in a short amount of time, has come into play. Masu. 15 years ago, we used to run big ads to one big, bold target, but today's ads are segmented by attributes, so the amount of production is huge compared to the budget. I am. Some people may see advertisements every day, but people with different attributes may not know about them at all.

TsujiThis is what is called “brand measures'' and “reaping.'' “Branding” is the act of cultivating a field. Advertisements do not directly encourage purchases, but instead convey messages and worldviews to foster brand image. On the other hand, “reaping” is literally an advertisement whose purpose is to get the end user to press the purchase button. Since “reaping” requires clearly achieving goals, a larger budget is often allocated, especially for digital advertising. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, and I think there needs to be a way to appeal to people to encourage purchases. However, since it is easy to visualize numbers, they tend to carry a lot of weight, so “brand measures” are often handled by different companies, and each company sends out conflicting messages. For example, even within the same company, a commercial aimed at promoting the brand may send out a natural message such as “Love yourself,'' but a banner ad displayed on a smartphone may use expressions that arouse complexes. is. What's more, affiliate marketing and other companies are creating more and more provocative and sexual ads that advertisers don't even look at because they're making numbers. Since it is a success fee type, the more exciting things you create, the more it will sell. Of course, platforms and media such as Google and Yahoo are also regulating things, but no matter how much they regulate, the reality is that it's a cat-and-mouse game.

Gender norms that are unconsciously imprinted through advertising

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KobayashiLooking at the visuals posted on beverage vending machines from the perspective of gender expression, middle-aged men often appear in advertisements for canned coffee, and women often appear in advertisements for tea. Also, a public service announcement to prevent molestation shows a man glaring at someone with furrowed brows. I wonder what effect it has. I believe that when we see such advertisements on our way to school or work, gender norms are imprinted on our subconscious. I'm often asked whether it's okay to replace “gender” with “sex,” but “gender” is a concept of sexual difference that is constructed “culturally and socially.” It's not that I'm a man or a woman, it's that it's hard for both of us to have to fit ourselves into the images that society has prescribed, but for some reason it's become like a gender binary, and there's no discussion at all. I can't proceed.

TsujiThere is also the issue of “public nature'' as an advertiser. Old paintings exhibited in museums often depict women lying naked, and the masters who painted them were often men. Nowadays, gravure idols appear on the covers of weekly magazines, and even politicians and ministers criticize their appearance. For a long time, women were expected to be objectified. As this situation is changing, I believe that public institutions such as local governments, ministries, and police departments have a heavy responsibility for using animated illustrations that objectify women in their advertisements. If a private company becomes under fire and loses support, it is the company's fault for misreading its target, but government advertising costs come from our tax dollars, and the targets to which they should appeal are different from private companies. In the case of private companies, they appeal to their target group, but in the case of government, they must appeal to a wider and more diverse group of people, so advertising is naturally required to have a public nature. . Despite this, illustrations that emphasize sexual expression while ignoring the perspective of children and women have repeatedly appeared in local governments, causing a stir. I think government advertising staff need to reconsider what public interest is.

KobayashiThat discussion is difficult. When I held a study session on gender expression for high school teachers, I heard that young people tend to like such illustrations. For example, some of the materials used for career guidance depict anthropomorphic university subjects as anime characters, but high school students are already familiar with them from the anime, manga, and games they have watched since childhood. I accept it without any resistance.

TsujiIt gets ingrained in me. The same goes for street advertising, but when it comes to media that have a certain public nature, the media side sets up self-regulations called “media screening.'' However, recently, perhaps because the number of advertisements posted has decreased due to the economic downturn, I have the impression that regulations on street advertising in particular have become less strict. Just as laws have the effect of preventing crime, if the media had some kind of regulation in place, the number of such advertisements would decrease, but I think that is not working as well.

Spreading advertisements that resonate with consumers will support businesses.

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――While problematic advertisements are getting a lot of attention, are there any recent advertisements that you find interesting?

TsujiThe beer commercial starring Abareru-kun and his partner Yuka received many positive comments. The expression “a father who raises children'' was in keeping with the times. This may be a little off-topic, but from an advertiser's perspective, there is now so much information that it is becoming difficult for advertisements to reach consumers. It's difficult to see the response, and it's hard to know the answer to whether the company's efforts are being received well or whether this was the correct answer. Budgets are limited, and even if the people in charge have a lot of faith in their plans, they may be defeated. Everyone is suffering. That's why I think there is so much that consumers can do. It's a good example for companies to not only raise their voices against problematic advertisements, but also to post positive feedback from consumers if they find an advertisement that resonates with them by posting it on X or Instagram. It becomes easier to take a step forward. I think we need solidarity between businesses and consumers.

KobayashiI certainly feel that there is some anxiety caused by the lack of communication points between advertisers and consumers. Business scholar Peter Drucker said, “Communication is determined by the receiver,'' and we should carefully consider how the receiver perceives the message and improve communication between companies and consumers. I think we need to make it better.

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(Left) NIKE's 2018 ad featuring NFL player Colin Kaepernick. (Right) In 2017, the “Fearless Girl” campaign suddenly appeared on Wall Street in New York and became a hot topic. Photo: Getty Images

TsujiIn an example of how the recipient's reaction is important, NIKE used NFL player Colin Kaepernick in an ad in 2018. He refused to stand for the national anthem before a game, saying he had no respect for this country where racism is prevalent, and he was expelled from the NFL. Then Nike took over the city with an ad that read, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” There was a huge uproar, with people who objected to this and burned the products on social media, but NIKE did not back down, saying it was something they had to do based on their beliefs. In response, the number of voices of support gradually increased, and eventually sales and stock prices reached record highs. This is said to be a legendary campaign.

I would also like to introduce our 2017 campaign called “Fearless Girl.” The “Charging Bull” (giant bull statue) on Wall Street in New York is a dream motif for those aiming to enter the financial industry. One day, a bronze statue of a small girl stood proudly in front of the statue that had long reigned as a symbol of the strength of the homosocial financial industry. A fund conducted this project to coincide with International Women's Day in order to raise awareness about the small number of women in the financial industry. In the 12 weeks since its launch, this campaign has been viewed approximately 4.6 billion times on Twitter (currently known as X) and over 700 million times on Instagram. Now, several years later, it seems that the proportion of women on Wall Street is actually improving. It is very important for companies and advertisers to get into the problem, but at the same time, I think it will be difficult for these kinds of measures to take shape unless consumers join together and support them.

KobayashiIn an overseas example, in 2015, on the British subway, a supplement called Protein World was advertised with a photo of a woman in a bikini and a copy that read, “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” An advertisement has been posted. Then, people posted comments on social media saying, “This is body shaming,'' and a plus-size clothing rental company created a parody ad that read “100% BEACH BODY READY.'' This happened about 10 years ago, and it is an example of the viewer taking the initiative to express their intentions.

TsujiIn the topic of body neutrality, a technique called “anti-casting” has recently become a hot topic. With the emergence of AI advertising models, it is necessary to cast ads in consideration not only of indicators such as appearance and number of followers on SNS, but also of the context and thoughts of the person. I think that “anti-casting'' goes a step further and picks up candidates at random, or casts them based solely on their motivation letter rather than their appearance. As a result, the people appearing in advertisements vary in age and skin color. It may seem like a novel method at first glance, but it's actually more natural to have a diverse group of people. I think this is a positive action that companies and producers can take.

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This Milbon advertisement was created by Mr. Tsuji, who used a method called “anti-casting'' to select models from public recruitment.

KobayashiIn terms of casting in context, last year, a cosmetics ad in which MLB player Shohei Otani appeared became a hot topic. This increased the persuasiveness of the copy that emphasized the importance of skin care to men, making the advertisement uniquely meaningful to Otani.

What is the next action that will change advertising expressions in the future?

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Mika Kobayashi's book “Observing Advertising from a Gender Perspective'' (Gendaishokan) was released in September 2023.

KobayashiIn the book “Observing Advertising from a Gender Perspective,'' which I published last year, I wrote about gender views and lookism that can be seen in advertisements, but next time I'm thinking of writing a book about “men.'' Although the problems faced by women have been made more visible, men are still forced into a stereotype that has remained unchanged for more than 40 years, that men are great at working hard in suits. This is tough, isn't it? The movie “Barbie'' parodied the image of men as “talented men'' working in large companies and their behavior as a group. The “masculinity'' that is depicted in a uniform image is just a fantasy, and it is time to stop blindly believing in such an impossible fantasy and suffering in a panic. I think it's important that the voices of men involved come forward.

TsujiA company advertised that it had removed headshots from hiring resumes. This is an ideal example of conveying not just a message, but a company's actions as an advertisement to the world. Recently, many companies are trying to send out messages that solve “social issues,'' but when the subject becomes too big, individual lives and livelihoods are left behind. When it comes to topics that companies are trying to communicate, they need to keep asking themselves, “There are people who are suffering right now.Do I have the determination to reach out to them?''

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KobayashiIn the past few years, the gap in understanding between generations has widened, and I feel that the range of people who can understand each other through common topics and the same “language” has become extremely narrow. Therefore, if you don't think about how far away the problem is for the person you're confronting, you'll both end up in conflict, asking, “Why don't you understand?'' and becoming increasingly unable to say anything. However, this is also a problem that arises in the process of change. There was once a time when the only way for young people to survive was to develop a tolerance for harassment. Nowadays, times are changing dramatically. This is a great opportunity for the younger generation to take on new challenges, and middle-aged and older people who are afraid of change need to seriously change their mindset. Education is becoming more and more important. I would like to work on that.

TsujiAfter all, I also don't think it's okay for only the younger generation to be active. I believe that great advertisements and ideas are made up of three things: “perspective,” “technique,” and “ability to realize.”Technique requires the accumulation of experience. Although talent sometimes surpasses experience, there is much we can learn from older generations. The same goes for the ability to realize it. Sometimes, if the person above you approves, the plan goes through on the first try. Breakthrough power is absolutely necessary for projects that aim to change society, and I think there is a meaning in having older generations involved. On the other hand, we need people who have new values ​​and people who are involved in the issue, based on their unique perspective. Japan is based on seniority, so it is easy to reflect only the perspective of the decision-making layer. Therefore, I think it is necessary to have the courage to include people from completely different generations, different industries, and people with completely different identities in positions involved in decision-making.


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