It’s been a tough week for well-meaning department store ads in Japan. First there was Takashimaya’s attempt to promote Kyoto as a beacon of hope in these troubled times, which ended up sounding to many people like we all need to band together and stop the city’s diabolical plans.
Now comes a different ad campaign from rival department store group Seibu Sogo, whose yuletide message doesn’t seem to have hit its intended mark with all who’ve seen it. Take a look at the video below, in which Seibu Sogo suggests a number of ways to keep your spirits up during the 2020 Christmas season, and see if you can spot why it’s raising some eyebrows.
In just about any other year, the ad’s boldly proclaimed tagline, “Stay positive,” would be seen as straightforward encouragement to remember to look on the bright side of things and be thankful for all the little sources of happiness you’ve been blessed with. However, with the ad coming in the middle of a global pandemic, where many people’s inner monologues consist of bouncing back and forth between the questions “Am I/my family/my friends going to get sick?” and “Wait…are we already sick but just don’t know it yet?”, some people’s immediate interpretation of the word “positive” isn’t in the sense of “happy,” but “infected,” making it seem like Seibu Sogo is saying “Make sure that your COVID-19 infection lasts through the holidays!”
It’s probably not helping that the Stay Positive print poster shows two friends giving each other hugs with extremely extended arms, standing so far apart that they’re not even in the same room, visually hammering home a reminder that the coronavirus is floating around out there right before bringing up the word “positive.” Negative online reactions have included:
“Get ready for Christmas by staying infected!”
“I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help laughing about this.”
“NOBODY noticed this?”
“We’re at the point now where advertising production companies really should have two or three people who’re really good at foreign languages on their design teams.”
“They should contract for a native speaker to check these things.”
“Should have gone with something like ‘Stay strong’ instead.”
“This is terrible, Seibu. The meaning of ‘Stay positive for Crhismas’ [sic] depends on things like the time and conditions in which it’s said.”
On the other hand, a number of commenters have no problem with the ads, instead taking them in the way that they were obviously intended.
“’Stay positive’ is a perfectly normal way to say ‘stay upbeat.’”
“I think Seibu Sogo’s ad is fine. It’s better than ‘Save the World from Kyoto,’ anyway.”
“If you hear ‘Stay positive’ and you think the only thing they could be talking about is the coronavirus, I think you’ve got something wrong with your head.”
“Come on now, let’s try to think more positively.”
In Seibu Sogo’s defense, the English word “positive,” with the corrupted pronunciation pojitibu, is a commonly used loanword in Japanese, and is used only in the sense of “happy/optimistic.” While there’s plenty of talk about people’s coronavirus infection status going on in Japan these days, when speaking of someone who’s tested positive for a disease, the term used is always the indigenous Japanese yosei, or alternatively kansensha (“infected person”). The use of “stay” also nudges the needle towards the “happy” interpretation of positive, since saying “stay infected” would sort of imply that being infected is mankind’s default state, which isn’t the case.
Sources: Seibu Sogo, Twitter/@cetus03 via Jin, Twitter
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