Japan has to be one of the noisiest consumer markets in the world, with product messages coming at you from every imaginable surface, sight, sound, human interaction—and recently smell and taste. This of course is not a new thing and even hundreds of years ago, Japanese merchants were busy creating flyers and posters and affixing their ‘cool’ logos to them. If you wanted a snapping Ise ebi in Yoshiwara, you read the signs, with the biggest, most colorful ones afforded by the best shops.
In the 21st century, as a means of coping with the marketing onslaught, most Japanese people I know have learned to block out the noise to retain their sanity. It always surprises newcomers to Japan how the place is so cluttered—think power lines, shop signs, and radically different architectural styles impacting the view on any Tokyo shopping street. People have learned to not look at the offensive bits, and instead focus on the small flower pot on the pavement and see the beauty in it.
Having a population that is able to screen out distractions means marketers have to come up with ever more devious, or in-your-face, means of marketing to their audience. My favorite place to see this marketing-versus-humanity evolution at work is in Shibuya. Whatever is new to catch your attention, you’ll see it there first.
Several years ago, the hot thing was a big truck slowly working its way through the crowded streets, with huge rear-illuminated plastic signboards announcing the arrival of a new product. The most attention-grabbing was that for Moba-ge—a brand new cell phone gaming site. The effect of music, acid colors, and lights on the back of a 10-wheeler had just as an electric effect on the crowds as it did for the signboards, and Moba-ge quickly shot to the Number One position for mobile games.
Since then, any rock band worth its salt has a similarly outfitted truck tooling Shibuya’s streets. The best of these was one I saw a couple of days ago where a huge semi had a room-sized box on the back with clear plastic panels. Inside were two gyaru (‘teen girl’) dummies sitting on a sofa, obviously having a good time drinking coffee together. At least I think they were dummies—they were amazingly realistic and getting lots of surprised looks from the sidewalks.
Also falling into the category of in-your-face marketing is the re-emergence of chindonya, otherwise known as street musicians. In the days of old, groups of itinerant troubadors would earn their day’s rice ball by working the crowds outside a new business, singing and dancing its praises. Now there is such a group in traditional kimono complete with horns, drums and cymbals, working some of the streets around the back of the 109 Building in Shibuya. They are as noisy as anything, but it’s great to see them back and it really adds the fun back into shopping.
Now all we need is for some clever marketing person to come up with a ‘noise index,’ to give us a measure of business spending in the marketing sector and thus an idea of how healthy the economy is. While traditionally, more noise has meant more success, as per the Moba-ge model, our take is that with a pending economic downturn, more noise will mean that merchants are becoming evermore desperate to get customers in the door.