Fans around the globe enjoy a good Disney flick, and cute-loving audiences in Japan are no exception. Yet, the mass media conglomerate was recently forced to apologize after a Twitter-based marketing campaign offended movie-goers.

Disney films gross large box offices in the land of the rising sun despite historically delayed release dates. The Disneyland and Disney Sea theme parks in Chiba Prefecture are also massively popular. Throughout lackluster economic times, the high-priced resort continues to captivate millions of guests each year. With approximately 90,000 visitors per day, the parks are widely considered a breakout success [1, 2].

Considering the massive profits of Disney’s recent Lion King ($1.65 billion), it’s easy to suggest the company has lofty revenue targets for Frozen 2 [3].

Guerilla Marketing

Stealth marketing, a form of guerrilla marketing or non-traditional marketing, is the practice of advertising to consumers without them being aware [4]. Although consumers may not realize it, they are likely familiar with the method. The most obvious example is product placement in movies. At a nail-biting moment, the lead happens to reach for an ice-cold Coca-cola.

Yet, the tactic can be even shrewder. The most famous example was organized by Sony Ericsson in 2002 for their T68i camera phone. The device was the first cell phone to include a digital camera. For its marketing, Sony dispatched fake tourists to Times Square in New York City. The "sightseers" posed in front of landmarks and asked passersby to snap a picture. The paid actors also took the opportunity to explain the features of their cutting-edge phone.

The campaign was a huge success, and marketers began embracing the technique. In recent years, the internet and the virality of content have only served to propel the strategy [5].

Building Upon Success

It’d be unthinkable to say Frozen 2 was anything but hugely popular. The movie grossed $1.3 billion in ticket sales and likely just as much in merchandising [6]. Japanese box office sales alone represented $249 million [3]. With an eye on revenues, aggressive marketing decisions perhaps led Disney to its recent debacle.

In early December, manga fans noticed several peculiar tweets. At that time, seven manga artists had posted content noticeably similar in theme. The tweets included illustrations of Frozen 2 characters alongside similarly-worded praise for the movie [7].

You can see the original illustrations here. Some fan reactions include:

  • “Only unscrupulous artists do this sort of thing. You know they are getting paid for their stealth marketing.”
  • “Stealth marketing blows.”
  • “This campaign is going up in flames, it needs to be 'frozen.'”
  • “Are there no limits to stealth marketing? Is it that profitable?”

Disney quickly addressed the buzz, claiming the mix-up was due to a simple miscommunication with their marketing firm Dentsu [8]. However, in a December 11th tweet, manga artist Kosame Daizu revealed the intentions of the campaign. He admitted to over 100,000 followers that his involvement and previous posting was indeed part of a paid promotion [7].

Paraphrasing, Kosame remarked that there were communications between himself and the marketers concerning the use of #PR, an indicator of promotional material. At the time, he continued, the marketers of the movie were quickly orchestrating a large amount of advertising material. His employers told him the hashtag was not needed, which he assumed to be true. Kosame admitted to failing to research the matter and confirm the hashtag information for himself. The artist promised to exercise due diligence in the future.

Other artists involved soon followed suit and apologized for their involvement in the campaign. Currently, responsibility for the incident is being apportioned in talks between Disney and Dentsu. The companies have canceled numerous other advertising plans for Frozen 2 [9].

Après Moi le Deluge

Concern is spreading throughout Japan about the disclosure of promotional material. With the spread of affiliate marketing, whereby users of a product receive commissions by referring friends or followers, the lines between internet content and advertisements are becoming increasingly blurred and harder to police.

Hokuto Kasai, head of the board of directors of the Japan Affiliate Organization (JAO), told the Mainichi Shinbun newspaper, "It's the norm for advertisers, [affiliate service providers] and marketing affiliates to collude on stealth marketing." He added, "On social networking sites, it's impossible to tell the difference between personal thoughts and advertising, and there's so much of it out there that it's hard to detect [10].”

Social networking sites are not alone in facing increased scrutiny of unethical promotional practices. Japan's Fair Trade Commission recently said that E-commerce platforms such as Rakuten and Amazon should be more transparent on how they rank product search results. According to the commission’s November report, an increasing number of vendors suggested that search results were skewed to favor vendors who spend heavily on advertising [11].

Ad platform operators are also the target of recent anti-trust legislation in Japan. Aimed at Big Tech companies such as app stores and online retailers, new requirements seek to level unfair rules imposed by vendors [12]. Such legislation comes after the government imposed tighter regulations on unfair user data privacy policies earlier in 2019. According to officials, these moves seek to stop unfair trade-offs between privacy and free services [13]. Undeniably, Tokyo is acting to rein in unpalatable online actions, particularly by big players.

Touching a Nerve

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, Japan is one of the lowest trusting nations of businesses and media. Verification behavior is prevalent here, as consumers seek to establish the credibility of advertising via online searches and peer reviews [14].

Indeed, consumers expect businesses to establish trust throughout their interactions with customers. Consumer research in Japan has noted that maintaining a positive rapport of trust is crucial to a business's success and continued buyer-seller relationships [15]. Somewhat paradoxically, Japanese netizens' trust of social media is relatively high, with 56 percent of survey respondents claiming to believe what they read [16]. This speaks to the importance of peer opinions in Japan, a country where group consensus is vital.

Stealth marketing, especially by behemoths such as Disney, fly in the face of these values and the norms regulating business-customer interactions. Consumers see the practice, perhaps rightly, as disingenuous. Scrupulous shoppers in weak economic times, Japanese customers are increasingly selective about their spending, and thereby the advertising they consume [17].

Disney's controversial marketing strategy was almost too well-designed. The campaign leveraged an over-reliance on peer opinion and trust of social media while circumventing the usual avenues of product selection and trust building. Thrifty people, the last place Japanese consumers want their money to end-up is in the hands of duplicitous marketers. Disney’s actions flew in the face of this sentiment, and there was unsurprisingly a backlash. It’s likely a good thing the company was quick to apologize. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine the controversy preventing fans from buying merchandise and tickets.

By - Luke Mahoney.