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Japan tiptoes toward comparative ads

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TOKYO-When General Motors asked Japanese consumers to "compare our Seville's fuel efficiency with Infmiti's" in seven major newspapers last year, it was an example of a growing trend in advertising that defies the traditions of this nation.
Last week, computer makers NEC and Compaq squared off in comparative ads in yet another example of a trend toward comparative advertising in what amounts to a volteface in this country where direct confrontation is taboo.
General Motors' attempt to upgrade the image of American cars among Japanese consumers took the form of a subtle but unmistakable comparison of such issues as quality, price and fuel efficiency.
GM's 4,892cc Cadillac Seville is competing for the same market niche as the 4,494cc Nissan Infiniti Q45. The fuel efficiency indicated in large type in the GM ads lists both cars as having the same 6.8 kilometers per litre. The comparison is made in smaller type, where it is said that GM cars show superior performance at high speeds. Even in this tame manner the GM ads represent a turning point for Japanese advertising.
GM's head-on comparison ads constitute a transition between the soft, emotive messages of the past and a new era of more assertive comparisons. Japanese advertisers, who traditionally have eschewed the head-on approach that emphasizes the weakness of rival products, will doubtless be wondering just how hard-hitting their comparative ads should be.
In the 1980s the Japan Fair Trade Commission relaxed the regulations that up to that point all but prohibited comparative ads here. The commission ruled that PepsiCo Japan television commercials taking shots at Coca-Cola were not a violation of its rules. Up till then, ads that failed to compare objectively or were thought to slander a company's product were barred.
The use of comparison in advertising suffered an abortive start in the spring of 1991 when PepsiCo had to pull its Hammer commercials in which the singer recovers his rhythm after drinking a Pepsi in preference to Coca-Cola.
The harder-edged tactics are showing benefits for GM. The company has been enjoying increased sales, with its total vehicle registrations expected to grow 20% in 1992.
A Dentsu Inc. consumer survey on the form found that Japanese consumers prefer humor in such commercials, but there's a certain segment of the population that stfll rejects comparative ads.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)