Contrastive TV Commercial Strategies: the United States and Japan

Advertisements surround people in the world and they are influenced by cultures in the place where the people are. There can be many types of advertising operated by local cultures. For instance, there are two types of selling strategies: hard sell and soft sell. While hard sell uses direct and straight messages, soft sell uses indirect and subtle messages in order to advertise products. These two strategies can be considered to be affected by two communication styles which are formed by cultures—high-context and low-context. Whereas high-context culture such as Japanese language requires people to supplement the contents by understanding implication of a speaker, low-context culture such as German and English needs every word to express something and a speaker cannot omit any word to consist the sentence. Therefore, these two different methods for TV commercializing interact with the communication styles: while in the United States, where people use low-context language, businesses adopt hard sell, however in Japan, where people use high-context language, companies use soft sell.

First of all, whereas American commercials have relatively long time period in TV advertisements, Japanese adverts have much shorter time period compared to American ads. According to Koji Akiyama (1993), a professor of Yamanashi University, the majority of American advertisements take one minute or thirty seconds, and fifteen seconds versions are not common at all (p. 89). In fact, it is natural for American advertisers to spend longer time broadcasting commercials since English is based on low-context culture, that is, they need to explain and illustrate the detail of products. In contrast, most Japanese adverts are so short that they are only fifteen seconds. Mr Sato, one of the most noted commercial producers in Japan, explains that simple refrain is much more effective than garnished scenery in order to advertise merchandise (as cited in Akiyama, 1993). It is because Japanese language is one of the best examples of high-context culture and the advertisers only have to express the atmosphere of products. Therefore, while very long TV adverts are common in the United States, much shorter TV ads are typical in Japan because of culture.

Another difference between the United States and Japan in TV advertisements is the contents of commercials. Whereas American adverts often logically use detailed information such as technical data and specific characteristics of merchandise in commercial, Japanese ads tend to express the reliability and atmosphere of products. On the one hand, the features of TV commercials in the United States are “a great amount of words on the TV screen,” “frequent showing of price” and having “their own internal logic which is original and sensible” (Akiyama, 1993, p. 89). On the other hand, in Japan, Gaumer and Shah (2002), a professor of Frostburg State University, insist that too much emphasis upon product benefits and intimate features of merchandise are considered as offence to consumers’ intellect and their ability to distinguish (p. 29). It is clear that while people in the United States evaluate products with logic, which is objective way to discern something, people in Japan evaluate merchandise with their own knowledge, which is subjective way to buy merchandise. Therefore, Americans think that it is more important to know the length and breadth of products since they are under low-context culture, Japanese, who live in high-context culture, think that it is adequate to find the atmosphere of merchandise to be good enough to buy.

Last of all, while advertisers in the United States do not frequently use celebrities like film stars and singers in TV advertisements, Japanese companies often use them. Yasuhiko Kobayashi, a professor at the graduate school of Aoyama Gakuin University, points out that it is not ordinary for public figures to appear in commercials of merchandise which are not related to them because “he or she would be seen as a greedy, corporate lackey who has nothing to do with the product itself. The star would lose respect, and so would the product” (as cited in McCulloch, 2004). Thus, hard sell should be the main selling strategy in the United States because American customers find logical relationship significant. Meanwhile, 80% of the adverts in Japan feature endorsers even though they are not related to the products themselves and it is said that “the bigger the star, the better” (McCulloch, 2004, p. 5-6). For instance, Yasosuke Bando, a famous kabuki actor in Japan, is featured in a TV ad of coffee (Akiyama, 1993, p. 100). It is obvious for everyone that he completely has nothing to do with the coffee, but the commercial is beautiful and easy to remain in people’s memory. This kind of advertisement is a typical example of soft sell. Therefore, these two different advertising tactics is precisely because of the factors: in the United States, people prefer logic to emotion; in Japan, people want to feel relief caused by popular endorsers.

To sum up, the strategies to sell merchandise efficiently defers between the United States and Japan because advertisers need to apply the most proper type of TV commercial to each country. While in the United States, people use English, which is a low-context language, therefore the advertisements have to secure longer time in order to give sufficient explanation and information to those who watch the TV adverts, Japanese companies only need much shorter time since the language is extremely high-context and emotional factor is enough to make the customers trust the merchandise. In addition, whereas American commercials often include specific information such as convincing words, price and logic, Japanese advertisements do not have such tendency because too much explanation can offend customers’ intelligence. Moreover, while advertisers in the United States only use celebrities as endorsers when they are strongly related to the merchandise because overuse of unrelated stars can make the audience consider the star as a stingy person and it also can lower the reputation of merchandise, most companies in Japan often use them no matter what the products are because famous and reliable endorsers who are on the commercials can also represent publicity and relief of the products, making customers feel comfortable and soothed. Ultimately, there are the best approaches to advertise merchandise for each culture. It might be interesting, however, that applying different selling strategy to different culture since globalisation is trending all over the world and people’s sense of value are gradually shading.



Akiyama, K. (1993). A Study of Japanese TV Commercials from Socio-cultural Perspectives: Special Attributes of Nonverbal Features and Their Effects. Intercultural Communication Studies.
Gaumer, C. and Shah, A. (2002). Television Advertising and Child Consumer: Different Strategies for U.S. and Japanese Marketers.
McCulloch, L. (9 April 2004). Japanese Ads Require Finesse, Not In-your-face Antics, Speaker Says. Medill News. Northwestern University.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s