Yves here. This is an extremely instructive analysis. And denizens of Wall Street may recognize the parallels to the old saying, “Stocks are sold, not bought.”
By Clive, an investment technology professional and Japanophile
Without promotion, something terrible happens… nothing! – P.T. Barnum
You might have heard of ukiyo-e, a style of Japanese art which caused something of a sensation when it was introduced to the West in the 18th and 19th centuries and is cited as having influenced members of the avant-garde artistic movement in the early 20th century. Little original ukiyo-e survived in its homeland and when, much later, it was recognised by the Japanese as an important aspect of Japan’s cultural heritage, the ukiyo-e often had to be obtained from foreign museums and purchased from U.S. and European collectors.
Contemporary western eyes recognised instantly that the ukiyo-e was something distinctive and valuable. I usually translate ukiyo-e as meaning “pictures of the world as it floats by” because that gives a sense of how ukiyo-e captures that which is fleeting, everyday and ordinary. Cheaply produced in large quantities, to the Japanese at the time it was mere basic decoration. I think it was seen in the same way as we might see a fridge magnet today. It, even at its most profound, simply captures something that was momentarily special at that point in time or, more mundanely, just brightens up a dull corner. The ukiyo-e’s ubiquity to the Japanese prevented them from appreciating how it enabled a vast number of snapshots of Japanese life and culture to be preserved.
I think today’s advertising is our own ukiyo-e. Derided, ignored, it turns into our culture’s background visual noise and decoration. Hopelessly passé as soon as it is seen, we don’t examine it and we don’t give it, usually, a second thought when we – its target audience – sees it as intended by the companies which pay for it. But my view is that it holds up a unique mirror to our societies and our prevailing cultures if we can take the time to look into it from a slightly oblique viewpoint.
This comes from the fact that, by necessity, advertising has to do an awful lot with limited resources in a very short space of time. When advertising has to assemble its message, it can’t afford the luxury of being too experimental or straying away from the familiar. Promotors of whatever product or service is being marketed instead have no choice but to rummage around in a dressing-up box of cast-off hand-me-down metaphors, well-known and well-understood concepts and simple, easily spotted references. Unavoidably, given the constraints, there’s often little opportunity to polish away gender, racial and class stereotyping. Social problems can either be seen, sometimes seeping through unintended or – even – actively called on to reinforce the selling point.
Compare this with academic or scientific research. No reputable academic or scientist wants their results to be “contaminated” with clichés, unwanted influences like peer pressure or inadvertent biases like sexism. But as a consequence, these things don’t typically get studied formally or, if they are studied, the act of studying comes with baggage all of its own. Well, we can redress the balance and do the studying ourselves, if we open our eyes to what’s going on around us a little.
As an example, I vividly recall the first time I saw, when visiting the U.S., a television commercial for prescription medication. I was genuinely shocked. I’d say that what made it most memorable was not just the shock at my initial reaction that pharmaceutical companies could – and obviously did! – advertise prescription medication but that people in the U.S. had so obviously normalised it. Having seen the commercial and being, as we say here, gobsmacked, once I’d picked my lower jaw up off the floor I spluttered to my companions who were watching the television with me at the time and tried to express some semblance of how stunned I was and how deeply, deeply wrong I found the whole idea to be. But they just gave me an odd look and, in a roundabout way, asked me what all the fuss was about.
When I pointed out how it was that they so failed to see how – through watching that commercial – it was so obvious to an outsider (a non U.S. resident) that here, laid bare, was a perfect illustration of who the various actors are in U.S. healthcare (or the healthcare market?), what their roles are supposed to be and how distorted the whole ensemble is, they were genuinely nonplussed.
Then came the really unexpected part. My fellow viewers – who I knew to be pretty liberal sorts – got, highly uncharacteristically for Americans, not a little peeved at my indignant questioning. In criticising the prescription medication commercial, it was like I was mounting an assault on shared American values themselves. This was because the commercial was the embodiment of certain American values writ large on the television screen. How dare, in effect my viewing companions asked, I suggest that what they get to see on television should be censored? And how did I have the nerve to think that they were not sophisticated enough consumers to know what was good for them?
The conversation went on for a little while as we ended up comparing the merits, or otherwise, of the U.S. system of healthcare and what it involved from healthcare users (consumers?) until one of my friends, who I always knew as being very mild mannered mentioned something about “death panels” in “socialist systems” and I knew that this was one conversation that had to be brought diplomatically to a close.
And who knows, maybe I should be talking to my doctor about Brilinta and asking if it could be right for me. And I had learned a great deal about U.S. culture in the process, just through that innocent – or maybe not quite so innocent – commercial.
One of the most powerful things about ukiyo-e was the way that, because the appeal was based on a here-today-gone-tomorrow transiency, it allows modern-day viewers to understand how changes in Japan, like the increasing numbers of foreigners, were viewed by contemporary Japanese people at the time. It didn’t try to be anything other than what it was. This is the parallel with modern advertising.
While it might seem unavoidably to us now as just another contributor to the daily assault on our senses and mental bandwidth, we’re actually in a privileged position to watch a new industry emerging – the Internet of Things – through how the vendors of the various products and services which make it up try to sell it to us. Although I do admit it doesn’t feel much of a privilege; but that’s just the point, we don’t appreciate it and we can’t wait to get rid of it from our much more important-seeming lists of things to take note of.
So please join me if you’ve got a few minutes in a slightly more formal study of the following examples of modern-day ukiyo-e and then see if you agree with me about what might be floating by us in our world today. The Internet of Things is a perfect place to start because, being new, it has to somehow – from an advertising standpoint – reference both the familiar (it is rare for advertising to attempt to do anything completely radical) but at the same time try to point out what the advertisers would like you to think you’re missing by not embracing this brand-new innovation.
As Japan gave us ukiyo-e, we’ll head there first to have a look at how air conditioner manufacturer Daikin is attempting to persuade a nation suffering from gadgetry overload (maybe they should be talking to their doctors to see if there’s a medication that could be right for them about that) to make room in their lives for another new invention. I’d recommend that you watch this short video twice – it is designed for television so fits into the 30 second slot format. On first viewing, just familiarise yourself with the content and the message (it is of course in Japanese so don’t worry about understanding the words, this isn’t necessary because the selling is done visually and I’ve included a precis translation below). Then, on the second viewing, try to examine consciously what else might be going on in this commercial that isn’t either overt or, even better, might not be what the advertiser intended to communicate.
 Voice Over: (young woman speaking off camera) “When I was a child and had a summer fever my parents were always there to make sure I stayed cool.”.
 A Middle-aged Couple fan their child who looks unwell and has a high temperature. They use a traditional Japanese paper fan. The window and Japanese shōji (paper screens) are open but there isn’t a breeze coming in.
 Young Woman, to camera: “…in the same spirit, I bought an air conditioner”. (for my parents)
 Voice Over: (man speaking) “During the day when the room temperature and humidity increases, the air conditioner switches on automatically”. Overlay: Graph shows room temperature increases to a range where high temperatures are injurious to human health
 The Middle-aged Couple from earlier are shown as older versions of themselves struggling to complete sedentary tasks like reading or (what looks as if it could be) Japanese flower arranging and are having difficulty maintaining concentration. The implication is that they are suffering from the early signs of heatstroke
 Air Conditioner: “The temperature is high, starting in cooling mode”. Visual Effect: The air conditioner’s smart controller is shown communicating with the unit. Caption: “High Temperature Patrol Mode” activated. The Couple take notice of the air conditioning starting and laugh. They are more animated and relaxed than previously.
[7[ Young Woman arrives at the house. Speaking to Couple: “Hi, is everything okay?”. The Couple are happy to see her.
 Picture: Product shot with inset of a ‘smart controller’. Voice Over: “Easy Air makes it simple”.
 Young Woman pets the dog and is shown speaking to Couple. Everyone is smiling and the atmosphere is convivial. Caption: “Re-thinking air conditioning”.
Next, we’re back in the U.S. for our next clip where smart thermostat manufacturer and Google (sorry, Alphabet) subsidiary Nest is promising to save us money on our utility bills.
I won’t summarise the contents of the Nest advertising here because it is U.S. in origin and in English but as with the one from Japan, it’s worth watching it a couple of times and try to notice what perceptional “hits” you get from it, both the obvious ones and the less obvious, possibly accidental ones.
Let’s now review both commercials and identify what the similarities are and what is different – and see what we might learn.
Both are for products in the same sector – home HVAC. And both are for products which are in the replacement or upgrade market – meaning that people almost certainly already have an existing version of the same product. So if the promoters are to be successful in getting people to buy a newer version of what they have right now, the new version must offer some quantifiable advantage. The advantage proffered in both the Daikin and Nest products is the same – home automation and connectivity.
This sort of advertising (for replacement purchases) can only use a sub-set of available selling angles on potential customers. Appealing to price sensitivity doesn’t really become effective because if you’ve already got the product and it works, any expenditure on a replacement is by definition highly discretionary. The pitch must be along the lines of “our new one is better than your old one”.
The “new and improved” element for both these products is that they are “smart” – they automate things that users either can’t do for themselves at all or can’t do very easily. But here of course is the first pitfall the manufacturers must avoid. In giving devices in your home more autonomy, you are ceding control to the device. While you may be happy with the device doing things you want it to, you definitely don’t want it doing things that are unexpected or unwelcome. This will always be a risk. So the advertising must offer a reward for that risk to offset it.
Here is where the two commercials start to diverge in their specifics – but they have the same approach which is to make an unspoken but unmistakable appeal to something a little deeper in our value systems.
In the Japanese advert, it might seem a bit too subtle to a western viewer, but a Japanese person will get the message straight away. At the start of the ad, the child is shown – and talks about – how her parents took care of her as a child. The woman then says – explicitly – “in the same spirit, I bought.”. In Japan, there is a profound and, even today, very strong, concept called in Japanese “giri” which isn’t easily translatable into a single word but can be thought of as a combination of “duty” and “obligation”. People feel (and do still act out of) a sense of responsibility to others. If someone has done something for you, you have an obligation back to the person who did it. The woman’s parents looked after her when she was younger and now she has to look after her parents now they are older. “Can’t buy me giri” (it doesn’t sound quite as good I know) the Beatles may have sung, had they been Japanese. Perhaps not, but the product maker is certainly suggesting that you can perhaps buy something that is a reasonable facsimile of it.
Turning to the Nest advertisement, here I will offer my interpretation of what is going on. But I am slightly disadvantaged because I am not a U.S. citizen. So I can’t avoid possibly making the same cultural faux pas as I did with the prescription drugs commercial and treading on cultural corns in the process. I hope I don’t give any offence here. And the point is that I’m asking readers to review the material consciously and come up with your own views about who the various actors are in this new market and what we’re being presumed to be thinking and doing. Right, amour on, shield at the ready.
What positively slaps me on the face about the Nest U.S. advertising is that it is blatantly money- and self- orientated. Certainly compared to the Japanese equivalent – there is no appeal to family responsibilities or responsibilities to broader society. There is, literally, money being scattered around by big business, consumers’ hands are shown, again – verbatim – grabbing for that dough. The reward is dollars, pure and simple. A worse fear put into viewers’ minds is, there could be dollars being handed out and someone else is getting your share. As a European, it strikes me as crass and unseemly – this sort of ad style would only be run by a low-rent discount operator hawking cheap rubbish. And yet here is the same approach for an aspirational high-end product in the U.S. What does that say about how the manufacturer views its customers and worse, if that were possible, what does that say about what is assumed to motivate Americans? Okay, you can start throwing your rotten eggs at me now.
As I’ve said, I don’t intend any offence here – and am more than happy if readers let me have your own, quite possibly differing, view. But that is the overall impression the U.S. commercial leaves me with.
Moving swiftly on and changing the subject, both these products manufacturers are sufficiently self-aware to not be able to ignore the second problem inherent in “smart”, “connected” technology – privacy and intrusion. The air conditioner shown logs presence data (it knows if you’re home or not and even which room you’re in) and will step in and take action if it thinks you’re not doing what you should be doing. The thermostat has to do similar things – it has to tell the power company if you’re home and if you’ve ignored the demand reduction request from the utility. They can each, not to put too finer point on it, snitch on their customers. But again, both manufacturers diverge in their method of trying to offset that downside.
The Japanese ad makes an appeal to emotion. The woman buys the air conditioner and lets it spy on Mom and Pop because she cares. Winston Smith-san is apparently quite content to have a telescreen installed at his parent’s house if it might stop them dying from heatstroke and he doesn’t have to visit as often. And Japanese manufacturer Daikin adopts a decoupled approach to the really Big Brother elements of smart appliances via an interesting variation in product design compared to the Nest thermostat. Internet connectivity is added separately – and optionally – to the smart air conditioner. The product itself is Internet of Things capable and can send a high temperature warning message to a smartphone app (it is strongly implied in the commercial that the woman has received a message to the effect that her parent’s house was getting hot hence the visit to them, which is reinforced by a similar looking actress appearing in the marketing literature for the smartphone app), but this isn’t shown on screen or in the same advertising.
The Nest thermostat can also be disconnected from the Internet but the design of the product’s “Rush Hour Rewards” feature, unlike the air conditioner, doesn’t allow the feature to work off-line. To get the rebate from your utility, you have to run the thermostat in Internet of Things mode. The manufacturer makes the justification on the basis of efficiency – through invading your own privacy we (the manufacturer) gain data, we use our expertise and that data to improve the operation of the power generation and grid system. That saves us money and we cut you in on the deal. Winston Smith is also apparently quite happy to have a telescreen installed in his house if he can participate in a revenue sharing scheme with Big Brother. Well, George Orwell certainly never saw that one coming.
Overall, I think Nest’s approach to privacy, or lack of it, is more honest even if it is hardly overt. But Daikin’s approach to product design is more thoughtful – you can opt-in to the Internet of Things (or not) without affecting the feature which is the unique selling point of the product.
That has covered some of the elements which are visible in the advertising, the actors which are clearly put in front of us to, it is hoped, convince us to buy the product. But what about those agents whose presence isn’t directly observable but which can be detected by inference?
Both the products examined in this analysis purport to utilise technology and market-based solutions – specifically, the monitoring, reporting and automation of activities in residential buildings which is now given the label “the Internet of Things” – to solve problems of one sort or another. Japan has an ageing population of a scale which has never before been encountered in human history. The U.S. energy addiction and the impacts it has needs no introduction.
First and foremost, these products and the advertising pictures created for them represents a consumer-led approach rather than any possibility that government policy or social reform might be able to achieve equivalent results. This is especially noticeable in these home- or domestic- market products. Take, for instance, the Japanese house featured in the commercial. It seemed, most unusually for a Japanese residence, to exist in a vacuum, with no neighbouring houses or community visible at all. Locally provided senior care obviously wasn’t going to look after the old folks. As for family, well, they couldn’t call round to check until later in the day – after work.
Also, is it just the heat which is threatening the health of that charming-looking Japanese couple? Is *the* problem as simple as the elderly not being aware of the dangers of excessive heat and the creeping effects of heatstroke rendering them unable to take effective action – for which a “smart” air conditioner is *the* answer? Research http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/443213in.html into heat-related deaths strongly suggests otherwise:
The [1995 Chicago heatwave’s] death toll was the result of distinct dangers in Chicago’s social environment: an increased population of isolated seniors who live and die alone; the culture of fear that makes city dwellers reluctant to trust their neighbors or, sometimes, even leave their houses; the abandonment of neighborhoods by businesses, service providers, and most residents, leaving only the most precarious behind; and the isolation and insecurity of single room occupancy dwellings and other last-ditch low-income housing. None of these common urban conditions show up as causes of death in the medical autopsies or political reports that establish the official record for the heat disaster.
And the U.S. targeted thermostat ad was even stranger. The dark-suited hand that was throwing the cash around – whose hand was that supposed to be? The utility company’s, presumably. But power companies don’t just go around giving their money – their profits – away. Regulators in federal, state or local utility commissioners’ offices make them do it. But the market-based solution shown sits uneasily atop of the regulatory “interference” that enabled it and which gave rise to the (presumed and hoped for) consumer demand for the new product.
Then there was all those houses in the neighbourhood leaving the A/C on at 72 degrees all afternoon. Who lives there? What are they thinking? If degradation of the commons (those brownouts and rolling blackouts) are caused by their actions – or inactions – but this cannot be prevented unless they all purchase this particular product, what does that say about the societies we live in?
Of course these are just advertising and you don’t expect paid-for promotional material to discuss negative points. And as they are new products, no-one has any experience on how to sell them effectively. Or even if they will sell in the quantities anticipated. If these approaches to selling the products work, then the next versions of the commercials will contain similar themes. But if we keep watch and keep noticing and find that points like privacy, security, social responsibility, regulatory requirements, better transparency on who is being paid by whom or similar start to feature, then we’ll know that Internet of Things manufacturers are having to address questions they are, initially at least, happy to evade right now.