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Toyota pulls Olympics TV ads in Japan

Toyota will refrain from airing television ads at home during the Games, and its chief executive, Akio Toyoda, will not attend the opening ceremony, a company spokesman told local news media during an online news conference.

By: New York Times |
July 20, 2021 12:03:51 pm
Toyota, Toyota Motor Corp, Toyota JapanToyota Motor Corp's logo on Estima Hybrid model is pictured at its headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, February 6, 2017. (REUTERS)

Written by Ben Dooley and Tiffany Hsu

Toyota said Monday that it had decided against running Olympics-themed television advertisements in Japan, a symbolic vote of no confidence from one of the country’s most influential companies just days before the Games begin amid a national state of emergency.

The Japanese public has expressed strong opposition to the Games — delayed for a year because of the pandemic — with many worrying that the influx of visitors from around the world could turn it into a COVID-19 superspreader event, undoing national efforts to keep coronavirus levels low.

Toyota will refrain from airing television ads at home during the Games, and its chief executive, Akio Toyoda, will not attend the opening ceremony, a company spokesman told local news media during an online news conference.

“Various aspects of this Olympics aren’t accepted by the public,” said the spokesman, Jun Nagata, according to the business daily Yomiuri Shimbun.

The ads will still be shown in other markets, Toyota Motor North America said in a statement.

“In the U.S., the campaign has already been shown nationally and will continue to be shown as planned with our media partners during the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020,” the statement said.

The company had prepared ads for the event but will not air them because of concerns that emphasizing its connection to the Games could create a backlash, said a person familiar with the company’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Toyota will continue its commitments to supporting Olympic athletes and providing transportation services during the Games, a spokesman said.

The company’s decision is “a big body blow to the Olympics,” said David Droga, founder of the Droga5 ad agency.

“You’d think that Toyota would be through thick and thin all in, but obviously the situation is more polarizing than we realize,” he said.

The vast majority of the Japanese public is opposed to holding the Games — set to begin Friday — under current conditions, polling shows, with many calling for them to be canceled outright.

Japanese authorities and Olympic officials have played down the concerns, saying strict precautions against the coronavirus will allow the Games to be held safely.

Anxieties have continued to mount, however. This month, Tokyo entered its fourth state of emergency in an effort to stop a sudden rise in virus cases as the country faces the more contagious delta variant. Cases, which remain low in comparison with many other developed nations, have exceeded 1,000 a day in the city, raising apprehension that measures that had succeeded in controlling the spread of the coronavirus could be losing their effectiveness.

Further complicating the situation is a steady drip of news reports about Olympic staff and athletes testing positive for the illness after arriving in Japan.

Toyota became a top Olympic sponsor in 2015, joining an elite class of corporate supporters that pay top dollar for the right to display the iconic rings of the Games in their advertising.

Until the pandemic hit, the company was one of the most visible supporters of the Olympics. In the run-up to the event, much of Tokyo’s taxi fleet was replaced with a sleek, new Toyota model prominently featuring the company’s logo alongside the Olympic rings. And the company pledged to make the event a showcase for its technological innovations, including self-driving vehicles to ferry athletes around the Olympic Village.

Toyota’s move could prompt other brands to follow suit, but several advertising experts do not expect a ripple effect.

“If you’re a Coca-Cola type, I don’t think it’ll be a retreat — the benefits of being a global sponsor will still work its magic in the U.S. and all the other countries,” Droga said. “It’s different when you’re in the center, actually in Japan, because that’s where the biggest contrast is going to be, where the Olympics aren’t like previous Olympics.”

Many companies are afraid of sacrificing more exposure, said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University and the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.

“My guess is that they’re going to try and push through so that they don’t lose the investment completely,” he said. “There’s an interesting calculus: If I pull out, how does that get translated in every language? In certain countries, it could seem like I did the right thing, but in others, it could be that I abandoned the one thing that gave the world hope.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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