The impact of the lost decade on advertising in Japan: a grounded theory approach

Shintaro Okazaki

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Barbara Mueller

San Diego State University


Research has documented that the Japanese have traditionally valued indirect and intuitive communications, whereas Americans have tended to value direct, exact and unambiguous communications (Lazer et al. 1985). Based on advertisements that appeared in Japan during the 1980s, Mueller (1987) suggested that the nature of Japanese advertising was very different from that of American advertising. Her content analysis found that Japanese advertising was far less direct and informative than American-style advertising, and that Japanese ads instead conveyed mood and atmosphere through a beautiful scene, or the development of an emotional story or verse. In short, emotion was emphasised over clear-cut product-related appeals. Japanese ads were characterised as ‘soft sell’, while American advertising was positioned as ‘hard sell’. Her findings were corroborated by a number of cross-cultural advertising researchers (Mueller 1992; Ramaprasad & Hasegawa 1992; Lin 1993). However, a replication of Mueller’s (1987) study found that ads appearing in Japan in 2005 were significantly more likely to employ product merit and hard sell appeals than earlier ads (Okazaki & Mueller 2008). This suggests a significant shift in advertising content over a nearly three-decade period, a period that included what has been termed Japan’s ‘lost decade’, the ten-year span during the 1990s when economic turmoil overshadowed Japanese society. But, while content analysis enables the detection of changes in manifest content, it does not allow the researcher to identify the ‘true’ causes of such changes. Our focus is to explore how the ‘lost decade’ impacted Japanese advertising, and whether this was reflected in changes in planning and execution.