About 80 seconds into Panasonic’s newest advert, a work-worn salaryman finally makes it home from the office. He is kissed by his waiting boyfriend and melts into a cuddly dinner on the sofa and general domestic bliss.
Throughout the dulcet feel-good fest, other young Japanese are seen unselfconsciously enjoying life as LGBT+ people. The tagline “#ThinkYourNormal” may suggest that Panasonic believes that Japanese society would previously have considered them abnormal, but the highly refined schmaltz is a difficult couple of minutes not to like.
Globally, Panasonic is not blazing much of a trail. In other countries for years now, hotels, airlines, soft drinks and banks have all put same-sex couples at the centre of different campaigns. Marketing veterans say these are more often tactics to differentiate brands from rivals than statements of philosophy. Renault’s 2019 TV ad marking the 30th anniversary of the Clio hatchback with a same-sex romance is seen as a triumph of the genre; the Anouk clothing brand became one of the first in India to deploy lesbians back in 2015.
Even in Japan, there is cautious precedent: Amazon and Google and a few smaller Japanese names have made modest attempts at on-screen taboo-breaking. And Panasonic is releasing the advert only online, rather than outing itself on the risk-averse airwaves of mainstream Japanese TV.
But given the company’s size, its well-known conservatism, and its status as a national industrial icon, the move could be an important step in a country that does not appear close to recognising same-sex marriage. The question is how far Panasonic has actually ventured and how credibly the advert marks a breakthrough.
For those inclined to despair over Japan’s progress on diversity, gender equality and inclusiveness, last week provided a steady supply of fuel. The media pointed out that the new minister for gender equality and female empowerment, Tamayo Marukawa, had actively campaigned against changing the rules to allow married couples to use separate surnames. The country’s former defence minister Tomomi Inada told reporters that a woman would only reach the top of the ruling Liberal Democratic party if some crisis had left it with no other choice. And a World Bank analysis ranking countries according to the impact of a legal and regulatory environment on women’s economic opportunity placed Japan in 80th place.
None of this diminishes the potential effect that a show of progressiveness by a company of Panasonic’s size and influence might have on less enlightened corners of corporate Japan. Even if it is a cynical marketing tool, the “Your Normal” advert is striking for a company which once encouraged workers to assert their “pride in traditional ideals” in the company song. After all, Panasonic was known for recruiting, moulding and maintaining a distinctive company “type” from which significant divergence was never particularly encouraged. If it is genuinely signalling — internally and externally — a break with that past, then this is a moment to relish.
But Panasonic may just be representing the desirable future as the present: a habit of technology companies everywhere. A producer of everything from massage trousers and household fittings to lithium batteries, Panasonic has long been about projecting the lifestyle, the home, the car or the city of the future. Its marketing has often blurred the lines between reality and ideal. And that is what it is doing with this campaign. The world depicted in Your Normal does not yet enjoy a frictionless relationship with the various normals that the Japanese workplace and society enforce.
The giveaway is that the advert has emanated from Panasonic’s most progressive department, the Future Life Factory, which falls under the company’s design division. All ad campaigns suffer from wishfulness to an extent, including many of the non-Japanese adverts on the subject of non-traditional relationships. But the exaggeration feels greater in Japan. The Your Normal campaign presents the battle for equality and diversity as already won, when, on Japan’s current trajectory, it will still require many years of fighting.