Japan’s Media, Mega-Ad Agencies, & Nuclear Industry: A Lethal Combination?

Ryu Honma, author of Dentsu and the Nuclear Coverage (電通と原発の報道) spoke at the FCCJ a few weeks ago and his explanation of how Japan’s powerful advertising agencies, “the fifth estate”, stifled unfavorable coverage of nuclear power was eye-opening.

The collusive role between Japan’s major advertising agencies, the media, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)–one of the largest advertisers in Kanto while having a monopoly on electric power—has been blamed for allowing TEPCO to get away with unsafe practices and malfeasance for years. Some have argued that Japan’s major media, bloated on a diet of TEPCO advertising dollars, failed to fulfill their role as monitor and critic of the nuclear industry. A recently published book about Dentsu (電通)Japan’s largest advertising agency and their impact on Japan’s reporting on nuclear power was released this year and stirred up controversy. However, except for one or two magazines, just like the book, TEPCO/The Dark Empire東京電力:帝国の暗黒–the book has been ignored by the major media outlets it criticizes.

Tokyo Electric Power Company in 2010 spent nearly 300 million dollars on advertising. (269億円). Dentsu helped them use that money to silence Japan’s press, according to the book’s author.

Dentsu and Hakuhodo intervene in media reporting

Ryu Honma worked in the megalithic Japanese advertising agency, Hakuhodo, for eighteen years in the sales and marketing department. Having been inside the industry, he knows the endemic social problems of the advertisement system in Japan and its consequences on the Japanese mainstream media reporting. He is one more author to denounce the corrupted Japanese mainstream media reporting.

What is an advertising agency?

Everyone believes they know the answer to this but let’s define it here. An advertising agency provides a service in creating, promoting and fixing advertising for its clients. An advertising agency is supposed to be independent from its client and offers services to help them sell their product or achieve better brand recognition.

The world’s biggest ad agency is Dentsu (Japan), with a total revenue of 22,000 million US $. The second listed in the world ranking is Omnicom Group, with its headquarters in New York, with 13,900 million US $ in revenue. Hakuhodo, is Japan’s second most powerful ad agency, and number six in the world ranking.

In his book “Dentsu and the Nuclear Coverage,” Ryu Honma offers a clear insight about the great influence Dentsu and Hakuhodo have had on the media coverage of Japan’s nuclear power plant safety issues.

His book is just one more that is not getting media coverage and reviews in the mainstream Japanese newspapers. (Except for AERA, a weekly magazine).

After research made on the media coverage of the 3.11 Fukushima nuclear accident, Ryu Honma asserts in his book, that over the past year, “There was very little mention in public about the responsibility of the media and the advertising agencies.”

Japan Subculture Research Center also reported the author and investigative journalist Katsunobu Onda, (the man who fought TEPCO), who exposed the truth about the deficiency of the reactors and the pipes that TEPCO has been using for decades. Onda’s book “Tokyo Denryoku: Teikoku No Ankoku”, (“TEPCO: the Dark Empire”), told the history of accidents and cover-ups at TEPCO in great detail. Issued in 2007 by his publisher Nanatsumori Shokan, it was mostly ignored and sold only 4,000 copies. It was reissued in April 2011 and sold 20,000 copies this time.

More than ten years ago, when Ryu Honma was still working for Hakuhodo, he was also a member of an anti nuclear non profit organization called Citizens’ Nuclear Power Information Center. He said in a press conference in Tokyo on October 16th 2012, that he was probably the only member from Hakuhodo to belong to that group at the time.

Because he was inclined to stand against nuclear energy, he said he was devastated when Japan’s biggest nuclear accident took place last year on 3.11, in Fukushima. He said he immediately followed the reporting of the accident, “However, the major Japanese media did not focus on the dangers of such accident,” he said. Whenever a problematic incident or accident occurred within a nuclear power plant, the advertising agencies would immediately take action. “What action did the agencies take? They made very direct requests to the media not to report any such news. Once a newspaper would receive such yousei, (要請) or request, it would deliberate whether it would make some adjustment on how much reporting it would make of the incident.”

Criteria for reporting news in Japan is related to money

Ryu Honma said that “The criteria for reporting news in Japan is directly related to the amount of advertising revenue that the media receives.” (The situation does not apply only to TEPCO and the nuclear industry.) This attitude of “taking care” of the client is also seen on a daily basis in Japan for major clients of advertising agencies, he added. For example, when Toyota had many problems with recalls of its vehicles, until the president of Toyota was asked to speak in front of the United States Congress, there was very little media coverage of the incident in Japan. Toyota is one of the largest sponsors of the media in Japan, and the media did not want to be put in a position where it might lose major advertising revenue.

“When such request is made to the media to hold down on a story, the threat is that the advertising revenues might be cut.” Honma explained. Obectively, it means that whenever a company experiences a negative incident, the information would be immediately reported to the advertisement agencies and the people at the agencies understand that this should not be reported in some certain ways. Therefore the ad agency gets in touch with the media, the TV stations and newspapers and generally talks with the sales department. In an ad agency, there are the sales department (営業部-eigyobu) and the news departments (報道部/houdoubu). Although they are separate entities, they collude when important action needs to be taken. The function of the news department in major advertising agencies appears to be to work on real news agencies to persuade them to cover the firm’s advertisers favorably or keep criticism at a minimum.

“There is a tendency to ‘kill’ negative stories”

The media and the advertising agencies have been involved in providing good services to important clients for so many years that their ability to make a judgment of right and wrong have become numbed, Honma explained at the press conference. As a result, he said “There is a tendency to kill negative stories,” in this case, with regarding nuclear power plants.

Then why “Denpaku,” the term referring to Dentsu and Hakuhodo, the two mega companies, can make such request over the media to give less detail on reporting some incidents? “These two companies together account for about 70 percent of all the advertising revenues and advertising expenses in Japan,” according to Honma. Dentsu, has nearly 50 percent of all the advertising revenues in Japan.) It is then natural that the media feel they can be forced to lose big source of revenue if they do not heed the All-Powerful Voice of Dentsu. “That’s why it is understandable that excessive self-restraint in their reporting activities occur,” Honma explained. The answer to whether Dentsu makes efforts to promote nuclear energy is not simple. Among the major advertising agencies, only Dentsu belongs to the JAIF (Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Incorporated). However, it did not mean that there was a kind of control division within Dentsu that told the company that they had to promote nuclear power. In both Hakuhodo and Denstu, nuclear power promotional advertisement could be run by un-powerful small divisions in charge of looking after the interests of nuclear power plants. The members in these divisions were not people burning with passion to promote nuclear energy, according to Honma, “They were simply following the wishes of their clients.” He added that if people in those divisions were interviewed about their responsibility in the whole process, they would probably respond that they do not feel responsible for the nuclear accident of Fukushima.

Advertising agencies, a Fifth Estate?

Ryu Honma explained that this is an example of something “uniquely Japanese,” which is “no sense of responsibility held by people in the advertising agencies, who are simply willing to satisfy their electric power plants clients, and protecting their own interests only.” The same can be said about the media who wanted to protect their own interests over the interests of the public; the media is happen to handcuff and gag themselves, most of the time.

It is generally considered that the media is the Fourth Estate. Their primary function is to monitor and observe the activities of the other great powers in society, however some people have pointed out that in Japan, the Fourth Estate serves a different purpose, they do not monitor authorities, they monitor the citizens.

Ryu Honma, after his experience working for 18 years in an advertising agency in Japan, said that he believed that they were a “Fifth Estate,” a huge power that does not recognize how influential they are, “Their only concern is not to make a moral judgment but to create more money.” He concluded. Japan’s Fifth Estate keeps a check on the Fourth Estate.

This year, TEPCO has been nationalized and the will of the Japanese people has changed tremendously with the anti nuclear movement, which is trying to eradicate dependence on nuclear power in Japan. However, Ryu Honma insisted on the fact that there have been no examination about the responsibility of the advertising agencies, and no efforts within the agencies themselves to reflect upon their role in this great accident.

And the influence of the “nuclear village,” centered around the Denjiren, or Federation of the Electric Power Companies, have remained unchanged at the moment.

The mainstream media are still afraid of losing the support of Denstu and Hakuhodo. Therefore the problems raised by the nuclear industry are not presented to the general public by the media, he insists.

Before 3.11, Dentsu and Hakuhodo and other advertising agencies had a system in place in regard to dealing with the media. They made sure that the media understood that they could not do some kind of negative reporting against the interests of their clients.

TV Asahi Newscaster was squeezed over nuclear power coverage and discussion

For example, in debates about nuclear power plants broadcasted by TV Asahi in late March 2011, guest speakers were mostly very much in favor of nuclear power plants, even few weeks after the nuclear accident of on March 11, 2011. According to Ryu Honma, Dentsu pushed the programmers and producers to bring together pro-nuclear speakers.

Also, for the first anniversary of the nuclear accident this year, a newscaster of Hodo Station, at TV Asahi, Ichiro Furutachi, has mentioned on air that he had been strongly pressured not to put together a special feature program about the first anniversary of the nuclear power plant accident. Again, for this TV program, most of the clients, who run advertisements and commercials on the program were pulled together by Dentsu, Honma said. The pressure on Ichiro Furutachi was emphasized when he was told that if he continues to run anti-nuclear power comments on his program, he would be forced to step down.

It says much about Japan that to even speak the truth about certain taboos, such as the nuclear industry, you have to first shield yourself by explaining how much pressure there is to not tell the truth in the first place.

Ryu Honma, author of Dentsu and the Nuclear Coverage (電通と原発の報道), at the FCCJ last month.

Comments
7 Responses to “Japan’s Media, Mega-Ad Agencies, & Nuclear Industry: A Lethal Combination?”
  1. BoccKob says:

    I agree, I don’t think it is the responsibility of advertising or media corporations to go against the interests of their clients. After all, they’re both businesses and it’s their job to ensure the money keeps flowing. Who would use their services if there was a chance they could turn around and slam your product? In turn, it is the responsibility of every citizen to completely ignore or suspect every single thing the media or advertising companies tell them. These companies exist to make profits. They don’t care one bit about any individual person’s life or well-being unless they’re directly funding them, so what incentive is there for anybody to trust them?

    Just as in the United States we have some “news” corporations who filter all information they receive so it reflects only what their owners want people to know and they’re worthless trash as well. I don’t think it’s a uniquely Japanese problem at all, except in that maybe they decide to not report something at all as opposed to outright lying about it.

  2. Robert Maxwell says:

    However, the media has a responsibility to be a monitor in democratic societies. And your correct, the repeal of the “equal time” rule has made that the case in the United States as well. However, its shows a lack of integrity and civic motivation for them to do such a thing.

  3. Casp says:

    Makes me think of the Fox rBGH story where part of the problem that few companies have so much of the market that they can influence the media?

    I don’t think the solution would be breaking them up because really those links have grown organically within the business culture. It’s really deeply ingrained as a mindset that you have to pay back or serve even when it has consequences like not reflecting the reality of a situation.

  4. advertising agenciesIts true that media has a responsibility to be a monitor in democratic societies.

  5. steve says:

    Not at all surprising. Reminds me of the effectiveness with which Johnny Kitagawa and Co very effectively squelched most coverage about Johnny-san being a predatory pederast.

  6. Taylor Brown says:

    “Ryu Honma explained that this is an example of something ‘uniquely Japanese,’” No, I don’t think this is uniquely Japanese. At least not the systemic features of corporate media. The staggering 70% of revenues enjoyed by only two companies in a single country might be unprecedented in the world stage, and yet another reason why conglomeration and convergence undermines the democratic process, but it’s not qualitatively different from, how say Enron, Shell, and Chevron advertise in the Economist with the result being nothing unfavourable about the fossil fuels industry. It is an institutional function that news organizations are sellers of a product, the product being the attention of the audience, and advertisers are the buyers who buy those audiences in order to advertise, Media companies sell audiences to advertisers. This “collusion” between media and corporations isn’t so much crude intervention or explicit mechanisms of control and censorship, but rather a predictable outcome of the dynamics of how advertisers and the press work to pursue their own interests and profits. To say that this state of affairs is uniquely Japanese is to underestimate the larger danger of how the press systematically and predictably screws over the citizens almost by definition.

    • Mr. Brown, you are quite right. I think it’s more exaggerated in Japan but I don’t know enough of the rest of the world to say that its unique to Japan. We do need a press that isn’t a slave to corporate sponsors and increasingly a Pro Publica type model seems the best way to do it.

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