One Club exhibit showcases creative trends in Japanese ads

In a country where East and West engage on a daily basis, ad creativity is spawning provocative, often controversial work.

For instance, in a recent Japanese spot for Suntory Mineral Water, a blue river stretches elegantly toward a bottle of mineral water, morphing into different leaf shapes along the way. Its Zen-like minimalism is in stark contrast to a commercial for contact-lens store EyeCity, in which four Gen Xers stand around a disheveled warehouse, take a mysterious pill rectally, fling off their clothes and—suddenly invisible—gallivant around a city.

The two singular ads showcase the new look of Japanese advertising, currently on display in the ambiguously titled exhibit Sushi & Sake: Japanese Advertising Deciphered, Sort Of, which runs through March 23 at The One Club in New York.

The show, offering a rare glimpse of Japanese print, TV and online advertising, was inspired by a trip One Club curator Ann Cooper took to Japan two years ago.

“I was taken by the dynamic sense of two clashing cultures,” she recalls. “Japan has been Westernized in many ways, and the West has taken on aspects of Japanese culture. … It seemed an appropriate time to stage an exhibit.”

The work—from agenciesthat include Dentsu, McCann-Erickson Japan, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Hakuhodo—attests to the mix of divergent cultural influences: Traditional Eastern motifs, such as ukiyo-e, are featured in Dentsu ads for FujiQ Highland, while America’s impact is borne by actress Alyssa Milano touting colored Levi’s in a BBH ad.

The exhibit highlights another important dynamic: the influence of youth culture on both traditional ads and agencies. New shops, such as upstart boutique Tugboat, founded by former creative directors at Dentsu, are challenging the status quo.

In a transit poster created by Tugboat, the practice of using celebrities to hawk products is given a twist. The work is comprised of CD-ROMs, each featuring a different Xerox product with a biography of Japanese movie star Tadanobu Asano. The catch? Consumers were encouraged to take them, which caused a sensation.

“In terms of a ‘new style,’ Tugboat’s creative work is part of today’s new trends,” says Dentsu creative director Akira Kagami. He points to “shorter, simpler copy and more complex presentations of information through art and images.”

Mostly, the One Club exhibit reflects the multifaceted nature of Japanese advertising.

“There is a far greater variety and range of styles of advertising in Japan today than in the past,” Cooper reports. “[For American creatives], it’s worth being aware of and taking a look at.”