In ageing Japan, TV ads selling tombstones take up prime-time slots

Japan's rapidly ageing population has had a significant effect on what passes for polite conversation on television advertisements.

A disproportionate number of advertisements plug health-related products for seniors, stretching the limits of good taste in some cases by asking viewers if they have trouble sleeping because of incontinence, or if they have prepared for their funeral arrangements. It gets worse when advertisers for "incontinence pants", or adult diapers, as well as health pills that claim to ease the inconvenience, attempt to lighten the mood by having the characters in the ads gush about the positive effects of the pants or the pills, leaving little to the imagination.

For instance, this TV commercial by a Fujita Stone tombstone maker commercial shows how happy a daughter and her late mother are about using a tombstone from the company. The tombstone is designed such that dew is prevented from forming so that users are kept nicely dry, like the weather in Hawaii, says the ad.

The ad goes:

Daughter: "Mum, you have always been a cheerful character, so even in your grave, you are probably thinking..."

Mum: "This is nicely dry and great, like Hawaii!"

Another ad, also by a tombstone maker, tells viewers visiting the grave of a loved one is about praying for the happiness of the family.

I understand that market realities are driving corporations eager to claim their share of a growing market, especially as seniors have more savings and, more importantly, spend more per month than those younger.

In Japan, there are now 32.5 million people who are aged 65 and above, but only 16.33 million children who are 14 or younger, a stark indicator of the country's changing demographics. According to industry projections, sales of adult diapers will overtake sales of baby nappies this year. Here's another market changing statistic - in 2013, there were 1,268,432 deaths as opposed to 1,029,800 births in Japan, with the difference between deaths and births hitting a new domestic record high.

But it is more than a little disconcerting when companies in the business of gravestones and funerals push ads that feature families with wide smiles on their faces, happy that they have chosen to go with the respective firms' services.

I suppose it is not easy to put a positive spin on products to do with such taboo issues as death and incontinence. Still, it has been a surprise that the Japanese, who are known for their subtlety, are unable to come up with something better than in-your-face ads. I much prefer companies which go after more life-affirming products in their pursuit of Japan's silver dollar.

From the time of my last posting to Japan from 1999 to 2003, I have been a fan of robotic technology to help provide companionship for the people, especially seniors and others who live alone. Back in 1999, Sony introduced Aibo, a robotic dog about 30cm tall that has an autonomous mode in which it could act like a real pet, doing its own things or responding to the owners until it was time for it to "sleep", or recharge at its power station. Unfortunately, Sony in 2006 cut Aibo, priced at about 200,000 yen each, as part of a cost-cutting and re-organisation exercise.

In recent years, automatic vacuum cleaners such as Sharp's Cocorobo are connected to the Internet and able to engage in limited "conversation" with the owners about such things as the weather.

But if talking to a vacuum cleaner is not quite your idea of companionship, Japanese telecom giant Softbank earlier this month introduced Pepper, a 1.2m-tall humanoid robot equipped with artificial intelligence that enables it to communicate and even "read" human emotions. I went to check out Pepper at a Softbank outlet on June 11. Since it only goes on sale in 2015 with a 198,000 yen (S$2,450) price tag, what I saw was a prototype that has yet to benefit from the apps and greater functionality still in development.

But what struck me was the fairly natural way Pepper spoke in a boy's voice (in Japanese only, although there should be no issue with programming Pepper to speak in other languages eventually) and the human-like movements it was capable of. Conversation, however, was rather stilted as Pepper is reliant on a limited number of set phrases at the moment and is more likely to launch into a monologue or tell jokes it has been programmed with whatever the question or comment. "My dream is to be a fantastic robot," it said even though I was asking it something else.

But the Pepper that will go on sale will be capable of learning from its interactions as well as from the interactions of other Peppers as they will be connected to the Internet, for a small monthly fee. I think Softbank is on to a winner, and I may have to prepare for the arrival of a new "family member". According to the company, consumer interest in Pepper has been very positive.


Retailers are also in the positive business of raising their game to appeal to the elderly. Upmarket department store Mitsukoshi, for instance, earlier this month teamed up with a cab company to offer the elderly a service where the taxi driver picks them up, serves as a caregiver and personal butler while they shop at Mitsukoshi's flagship store in Nihonbashi, and then takes them home.

The drivers are also store guid es who know the quickest way to get to the various floors and sections as well as rest spaces in the huge 64,000 sq m department store, which is two-thirds the size of Singapore's Vivocity.

Companies should make the effort to market their products targeted at the elderly in an acceptable manner even as they rush to corner a growing market. After all, the central idea is to help the elderly live their lives to the fullest.

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