Top Gender Equality Ad Fails in Japan

Cultural insight agency Tokyoesque cover some of Japan’s best and worst received gender advertisements.

What’s the deal with gender relations in Japan?

To set the scene of gender equality in Japan, the latest OECD data shows that Japan ranks in the bottom three in terms of the gender wage gap (a 24.5% gap vs. the OECD average of 13.8%). The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Survey (2017) shows that the average time wives spend doing housework is over six times the average time husbands spend on it in married households in Japan. This indicates that unpaid household chores are still largely seen as a woman’s domain, despite the fact that majority of married couples now earn a double income. The gender dynamic is certainly changing in Japan, but there is no denying that there is still a long way to go before gender equality is achieved.

In his opinion article in the Japan Times, Didier Andre Guillot writes that the gender gap is apparent in how often females are objectified in Japanese market. He says, “Japanese society has become so used to such marketing gimmicks that they do not feel inappropriate anymore…the situation is particularly alarming in Japan, because many young women seem to accept and emulate this objectified image of themselves.” It is true and obvious that female objectification is one part of many campaigns and communication strategies in the Japanese market. But do women in Japan really accept and internalise such female objectifications? Do they never speak up? The following examples dispel this notion and show that, in fact, Japanese women care when it comes to the way they are represented.

Top Female Ad Fails in Japan…


One of the most prominent miscellaneous stores in Japan, “LOFT” launched a campaign from the end of January this year for Valentine’s Day. Although there are some exceptions, on Valentine’s Day in Japan, it is considered the norm for women to give chocolates to men. Therefore, it was a natural choice for them to target female consumers. LOFT had to pull the campaign by 4th February, however, as it quickly faced a wave of criticism online for being misogynistic.

The advert featured five female cartoon characters with the message “Being a girl is fun! (onnanoko tte tanoshii!)”

On the surface this appears to be celebrating girls and encouraging the female audience to enjoy and make the most of Valentine’s Day. But when we take a closer look, the female characters’ are depicted as fickle and empty-headed; conversing about how cute / attractive their male partners are, with accompanying suggestive up-skirt imagery showing them pulling each other’s hair and and skirts. Because that’s all that women talk about and do behind closed doors right? Further adding to the misogynistic overtones, the closing caption reads “Friends forever! (zuttomo!)”, mocking female to female friendships and conversations as seemingly futile.

“Don’t you think my boyfriend is cute?” … “He seems like a really nice guy”
“It’s comfortable to hang out with girls”

The campaign faced a huge backlash from Twitter users:

“This kind of depiction of women is so old-fashioned and so not cool.”

“It’s obvious they think female friendship is shallow and essentially cold and stiff.”

“Why would they do that? It does not make any sense.”

“I wonder who exactly this campaign is trying to target.”

2. Go-Go Tea

For similar reasons, the “Go-Go Tea” Twitter campaign by Kirin (one of the most prominent beverage companies in Japan) faced criticism. It was launched on 28th April 2018, but was deleted three days later along with an official apology from Kirin. The campaign included cartoon female characters with descriptions such as, “conceited girl thinking she is a model” and, “girl who is dependent on her friends for everything”, as shown below:

“Conceited girl thinks she’s a model”

Kirin even encouraged users to re-tweet if they thought they knew a woman who falls into one of these categories. Bold move!

As to be expected, reactions to this campaign on Twitter were varied, but included:

“Why would they make fun of their customers?”

“I feel disgusted by this advert. I don’t want to buy their products anymore.”

“This advert is clearly objectifying, insulting and making fun of women…I won’t buy Kirin products anymore.”

Brands that managed to get the balance right

This does not mean, however, that discussions around gender issues are completely taboo. In fact, there are a few campaigns that gained audience support by directly addressing the gender debate in Japan.

One good example of this is a TV commercial by POLA, a major Japanese cosmetics brand. The TV commercial depicts female workers in the office engaging in small “office chores” that are stereotypically deemed as being ‘female’ tasks within Japanese workplace. These tasks include activities such as tidying up the coffee cups people used after a meeting or making photocopies for other colleagues. Each of the scenarios is followed by a narration that directly touches upon the issues many Japanese women are facing:

“This country is still a developing country for women — there are limited opportunities and we face unfairness. Common sense in old times is now merely a constraint. This is a restriction for me. Don’t be lost, don’t be distracted. I myself know what is important for me.”

Despite its bold approach for an ad campaign, the reactions were rather positive. Many of the female audience commented that the commercial is “relatable”, “encouraging” and even “emotional” for them.

Creating effective gender narratives in your own brand campaigns

Before launching a campaign in Japan to promote products and services to women, any brand should be keenly aware of how issues around gender are being debated in Japan. This, coupled with social media listening and in-depth interviews with the members of the target audience, can really ensure that women are being listened to. Tokyoesque can work with you in order to dig deeper into cultural nuances that drive successful campaigns focused on gender. In the process, you will uncover insights that can keep your brand aligned with positive representation.

Contact Tokyoesque for a free consultation on how your business can maintain its gender equality in Japan.