TOKYO -- "That double chin and fat belly of yours is so gross."
"How can a person like you, with so much acne, get a girlfriend, huh?"
These are just two lines from a series of manga-style online ads for supplements, lotions and other beauty products, in which the hateful jibes are flung at the main character in each story-like ad by their romantic partners or people from their social circle. The characters in these ads are humiliated and shamed over their physiques or looks.
The video ads, which appear frequently on YouTube in Japan, are usually narrated by the main character as they go through some hardship or embarrassment because of their physical appearance, and then solve the problem by using a certain product.
Now, however, people are taking to Twitter to express their discomfort with this type of marketing, while one 20-year-old Akita University of Art student named Aoi Murata has taken her opposition one step further, launching an immensely popular online petition against the body-shaming ads at change.org in late April.
According to the Japan Advertising Review Organization, it received 61-90 cases of complaints regarding video ads generally between February and May this year. But the figures for the same period last year hovered at somewhere between three and 15. And though some TV advertisements also promote products feeding on people's insecurities, the online video ads are notable for how they overemphasize the main character's physical features and strongly reject their current status resulting from their appearance, which includes "being unattractive." And as internet and smartphone use continues to expand, so too does the number of these ads, likely leading to the surge in complaints.
Murata, who is in her third year at the university, says the ads portray certain physical and other features "as something bad. (The ads) look down on some people as well as humiliate them." She pointed out that there are "many people, including myself, who get hurt every time we see them," and a lot of people seem to agree. Her petition has collected more than 30,000 signatures so far.
Like many others, Murata has stopped going out since this past spring as people have been requested to stay at home as a measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus. She began watching more YouTube videos, and she would see the ads more often. Murata disliked them even before the pandemic, but recently discovered on Twitter that her friends also found the ads disturbing. She recalled thinking, "If there are people being hurt emotionally, I need to raise my voice."
She says she found out she could organize a signature drive after seeing news in February about high school children launching a petition against a movie that illustrated homosexuality in a discriminatory way, and others collecting signatures in support of other causes, like backing the pandemic-hit film industry. She decided to act.
Murata does not intend to renounce all products promoted as solutions to people's insecurities. The only issue she has with the ads in question is their method. "For example, I don't think it's right to show a person being rejected due to their body hair. Whether or not you have hair, it should be respected as an individual choice," she explained.
The 20-year-old, who said that she has experienced weight gain due to stress, also pointed out that ads tend to suggest you can lose weight instantly. "But our bodies aren't that simple. We want those making the ads to understand that the situation varies from person to person."
Once she's collected enough signatures, Murata will submit the petition to YouTube parent Google, as well as three companies running the questionable commercials including a firm selling dietary supplements. She says she is also considering holding events and taking other actions to raise awareness of the problem in society.
While Murata has noticed her campaign has drawn together a growing number of people against "lookism" and the expressions used in the ads, she says the next problem she has to tackle is "addressing the many people who don't think it's wrong."
After she started to take action, Murata has seen some posts on Twitter aggressively criticizing her. She said, "By properly responding to those posts, I would like to let them know we exist in the same society. So I want to reply with dignity." She explained that she hopes to not take "the feelings of discomfort" she has in her daily life lightly, and to take part in movements for generations to come.
In an emailed reply to a request for comment on the degrading ads, Google admitted that advertising violating the company's policies had appeared online. The tech giant says it has introduced a new deletion protocol and has already taken down thousands of ads. It did not go on to detail about what kinds of content constituted a violation. A company spokesperson said Google will continue to strengthen its protocols and make efforts to remove inappropriate ads from its platforms.
Tohko Tanaka, a professor of media culture at Otsuma Women's University and an expert in the depictions used in advertising and other media, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Values are being spread that don't allow people to think positively about their body or their appearance. While these kinds of ads may not affect adults, who have certain abilities to make their own judgements, those ideas may take root in children and young people, and they are harmful."
Tanaka also touched upon the usual storylines, such as a girl saying, "I was dumped by my boyfriend because I was fat," and pointed out that it sends "an oversimplified message based on the heteronormative concepts of romance in which people are judged solely by their physical appeal to the opposite sex, and a norm that people feel they must follow, joining hands with an extreme marketing strategy that uses fear to make people buy things."
She added, "Ideally, it's important for ad makers to take a broad perspective and think about whether their commercials can make the target audience happy. Especially in recent years, the momentum for women to think positively about their bodies is building, and I would like for them (makers) to think of expressions that suit the time."
Furthermore, Tanaka says that unlike advertisements appearing on TV or in newspapers, some online ads are created in large batches and their content is not fully examined. "The very system that allows harmful ads to be made, distributed and seen by young people must be reviewed," she explained.
(Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Integrated Digital News Center)