Hilton Bashes Japanese Ryokans In Tone-Deaf Ad

Hilton Bashes Japanese Ryokans In Tone-Deaf Ad

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On November 9, 2023, Hilton published an ad in the Japanese market, for its luxury Conrad brand. The ad was pulled less than a week later, after backlash, as reported by Unseen Japan. I’m just so puzzled as to how this ad got approved, and/or Hilton thought this ad would go over well?

Conrad attacks ryokans in ad campaign

A 30-second ad intended to promote the Conrad brand debuted in Japan recently, and it attempted to contrast the experience of staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan, and staying at a Conrad hotel.

For those not familiar with ryokans, they’re traditional Japanese inns. Think of them as being like bed & breakfasts. It’s a totally different experience than staying at a western hotel group, for better and worse. Ryokans often don’t have gyms, and often have specific schedules they follow, with limited flexibility.

However, as many view it, that’s part of the charm, and it’s intended to be a lot more authentic and less transactional than your typical hotel experience.

Anyway, in the Conrad ad, a couple can be seen checking into a ryokan, where the employee basically talks their ears off, explaining the hotel’s specific guidelines:

“Bath time is between 5AM and 11PM. We will bring dinner to your room at 6PM. Please finish eating by 9PM. Breakfast is between 7AM and 10AM. The last order is at 9:30AM. It gets really busy around 8AM. Checkout is at 10AM.”

At that point a narrator jumps in, and says:

“When you can’t lay back at all despite being on a holiday you’ve looked forward to…”

That’s then contrasted to the couple staying at a Conrad property, where they’re seen enjoying the lobby area, and a staff member says:

“My dear guests, if you prefer to relax longer, we can change your dinner reservation to a later time.”

You can see the ad for yourself below.

How did Hilton think this ad was a good idea?

After backlash, Hilton pulled the ad, and explained that the company “had no intentions to degrade anybody or give off negative impressions.” Look, I’m not Japanese, and I don’t even speak the language, but even I could tell you that this ad isn’t doing a good job reading the room. Not only does it seem tone-deaf, but it doesn’t even make sense.

For one, while it’s common in the United States for companies to advertise in a comparative way that puts down the competition, that’s considered to be in bad taste in Japan. Yet that’s literally the entire basis of this ad.

Second of all, the examples provided oddly don’t actually make the point of how rigid a ryokan might be. Breakfast from 7AM until 10AM, with crowding at 8AM? That sounds like any Hilton property, and isn’t ryokan specific.

Third of all, I find it strange how this ad is specific to Conrad. Conrad only has two properties in Japan, in Osaka and Tokyo, so that’s not exactly a huge portfolio. While there are of course ryokans in major Japanese cities, they’re more popular outside of major cities, where Conrad doesn’t even have a presence.

One has to wonder how exactly this ad came to be. Did a US ad agency with no understanding of Japanese culture come up with this concept, and request that it just be translated? Or did an edge Japanese ad agency actually think this would land?

Bottom line

Hilton recently published an ad campaign in Japan for its Conrad brand, intended specifically to put down the ryokan experience, and promote the Conrad experience. This kind of advertising doesn’t really happen in Japan, and even if it did, this campaign doesn’t really make the point it’s trying to make. I can’t help but wonder what the backstory was here…

What do you make of this Hilton ryokan ad?

Conversations (48)
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  1. Andrew Diamond

    I stayed 8 nights in Conrad Tokyo this past February. I can tell you from first-hand experience their crowded hours are when breakfast is being served. Even at opening, there was a line of 5 families and a bunch of folks clearly heading to work afterwards.

    Agree with your take, Ben.

  2. Air Mika Guest

    Japanese here.

    I always complained that Japanese are the most inflexible people in the world.

    However, the flip to that side are consistency, reliability, and zero surprises.

    1. NYGuy24 Diamond

      Yes that is exactly my experience. Japanese customer service is excellent, unless something comes up outside their normal practices and then it can be a total nightmare. Where in some western countries the service can be hit or miss but if problems arise they are often much more willing to adapt on the fly.

  3. kuma Member

    Don't know how the first person made the connection to Ryokan.

    There is no mention that the rushed introduction is in a Ryokan. No explanation otherwise. As far as I can tell, Hilton is simply contrasting Conrad with "your regular hotel" and this has nothing to do with culture or racism or anything like that.

    Like other Japanese fluent commenters have pointed out. I can't find anything particularly inappropriate to Japanese locals in the ad.

    1. Sumo1 Guest

      The front desk lady states that the meal will be delivered to your room at 6pm, suggests that the couple is checking into a Ryokan style accommodation.

    2. NYGuy24 Diamond

      Not to mention everyone in the background is walking around in Yukata that all match.

  4. Steven E Guest

    Hi Ben I don’t understand the reference to the experience being less transactional ? What does this mean please

  5. Grey Diamond

    I think any argument that the advert is somehow racist or culturally insensitive is a bit much. Surely this advert was created by Japanese people. I know plenty of people who complain about these aspects of Ryokans. The problem with the advert is just that it is stupid. First off, comparing a Ryokan which will be like 40-50 EUR for a night to Japanese Conrads which are more like 400-500 EUR per night is already...

    I think any argument that the advert is somehow racist or culturally insensitive is a bit much. Surely this advert was created by Japanese people. I know plenty of people who complain about these aspects of Ryokans. The problem with the advert is just that it is stupid. First off, comparing a Ryokan which will be like 40-50 EUR for a night to Japanese Conrads which are more like 400-500 EUR per night is already just silly. Secondly, the reason the dinner time is flexible at Conrad is because it is not included in the price. The Ryokan includes your meals, so it will be at set times. Then the advert mentions that the public baths close at like 10 PM or something. I doubt the Conrad's are open 24/7. And then mentioning that breakfast is available for only a few hours in the morning. I mean, yes, I am sure the Conrad might have an extra couple of hours available for breakfast, but also, many (maybe most?) room rates at the Conrad do not include breakfast, so it is hardly comparable. And even if you don't want to have your included breakfast and dinner in those restricted Ryokan times, you are spending 400 EUR or so less, so you can afford to have a nice Michelin Star meal outside instead and still save money compared to the Conrad.
    I mean, ignoring any claims of racism or insensitivity, it is a bad advert because it doesn't make a very good case for spending an extra 400 or so EUR for their 'solution'.

    1. Smic8881 Member

      Lol! Not sure what ryokan you're referring to that would charge 40-50 EUR for a night...

    2. Japan Starts Here Guest

      Many of the simpler Japanese ryokan (and minshuku) are often priced in that range. It's only the "luxury," foreign-focused properties in Kyoto and Kanazawa that tend to be several hundred USD/EUR per night.

  6. annieairplane Guest

    I have stayed at Japanese Ryokans that are luxurious and wonderful, warm, welcoming experiences. We stay at a lot of Hilton properties, but the comparison is like determining which is better, an apple or a banana, they are simply too entirely different items. No one looking for a Conrad experience is going to be considering a ryokan and vice versa. Big miss on Hilton's part and in Japan, losing face is a long recovery.

    1. Sumo1 Guest

      Agree, luxury ryokans can go north of $1,000usd per night for 2 with your own private open air onsen off your room. Not to mention multi course kaiseki meals. Totally different experience.

      Not sure which type of business Conrad/hilton was trying to compete with in the ad. They need to distinguish themselves from the Ritz, mandarin oriental, Andaz and the like.

    2. Sumo1 Guest

      Agree, if Conrad is trying to compete with a Ryokan, I would assume they are trying to complete with luxury Ryokans. In which case, the cost would be somewhere north of $1,000 USD per night for two, including multi course kaiseki meal, fancy breakfast (all delivered to your room) and private open air onsen bath off your room (with that your bath time is 24/7). Completely different market/experience. Conrad needs to distinguish themselves from the...

      Agree, if Conrad is trying to compete with a Ryokan, I would assume they are trying to complete with luxury Ryokans. In which case, the cost would be somewhere north of $1,000 USD per night for two, including multi course kaiseki meal, fancy breakfast (all delivered to your room) and private open air onsen bath off your room (with that your bath time is 24/7). Completely different market/experience. Conrad needs to distinguish themselves from the Ritz, Mandarin Oriental, Andaz, Four Seasons and the like.

      Unless the ad is trying to compare Japanese style accommodations to western style accommodations and not necessarily Conrad. So not sure what they were trying to go for here with that ad...

    3. NYGuy24 Diamond

      This ad was weird for a lot of reasons. I've stayed at ryokan before and there are nice. Ive also stayed at the conrads before in Japan. I much prefer the conrad for comfort. That being said they are two completely different experiences and really not apt for comparison. I guess the idea is they wanted to compare a luxury ryokan with a luxury hotel which is why they are only talking about conrad and...

      This ad was weird for a lot of reasons. I've stayed at ryokan before and there are nice. Ive also stayed at the conrads before in Japan. I much prefer the conrad for comfort. That being said they are two completely different experiences and really not apt for comparison. I guess the idea is they wanted to compare a luxury ryokan with a luxury hotel which is why they are only talking about conrad and not other hilton properties. The ad is meant to target a couple travelling. If they were looking for business travelers they could compare a japanese business hotel (which is nothing like a traditional ryokan) to the conrad.

  7. KW Guest

    Another failed example America thinking once again it is better than the rest of the world.

    When in reality it is the country of Trump, Biden, Obesity and Diabetes.

    1. Samo Guest

      Where do you all get an idea that the campaign was made in the US? It's a local campaign for Japanese market, so it's reasonable to assume that this was made by the local team. US marketing department would hardly be aware of Japanese cultural stereotypes.

    2. Brianair Guest

      And you think a country that commits war crimes and isn’t willing to apologize, has very few people who know or are willing to learn English, little to no willingness to believe there is an outside world beyond the country or really beyond the workplace, where the idea of “saving face” is ingrained into the societal norms and culture even if it hurts others is any better?

    3. Wilo Guest

      You are talking about the USA, right?

  8. Edward Guest

    Who is next up in the race to be the most offended this week?

  9. Brianair Guest

    Remember, this is the same country that has a large portion of “never travelers” (at least abroad), very low English literacy for a developed country, an aging and declining population, still refuses to apologize sincerely for their war crimes against China, Korea, etc., whose people are chronically overworked, forced to conform to a ton of rules, and essentially treated like robots. I’ve also heard that many people there are polite but actually really unfriendly underneath....

    Remember, this is the same country that has a large portion of “never travelers” (at least abroad), very low English literacy for a developed country, an aging and declining population, still refuses to apologize sincerely for their war crimes against China, Korea, etc., whose people are chronically overworked, forced to conform to a ton of rules, and essentially treated like robots. I’ve also heard that many people there are polite but actually really unfriendly underneath. Also I heard they’re super xenophobic to anyone without full Japanese blood, like I’ve read discrimination stories about half Black or Korean people there, although many Asian countries are like this. Instead of apologizing for their crimes, which would’ve been the right thing to do, Japan cozies up with the US and probably assumes that that will make up for it. At best Japan is an odd country with interesting traditions and at worst Japan is one of the worst societies in the modern world. It’s just that people can’t see that behind the colorful facade of all that Kantai Collection and Nintendo stuff. This doesn’t completely excuse what Hilton did but out of all the cultures I could see the Japanese being the most likely to be riled up over something like this. I can’t understand why all these weebs and westerners think so highly of the country. And I’m kind of a weeb myself and like many Nintendo games for the record. A lot of the technological innovations and food people rave about don’t make much sense like the umbrella lights in the elevator or turtle taxi. Capsule hotels were invented in Poland. Ramen was invented in China. Yet Japan takes credit for them. The place feels like the future… when it’s stuck in the 90s. Nothing against individual Japanese people by the way just pointing out societal issues with the country.

    1. Wilo Guest

      I guess you are unaware of the issues in the USA:
      -not many travelers abroad either.
      -has never apologised for atrocities in Irak, Central and South America, or to native-Americans.
      -Americans can be very xenophobic too, and racist towards their own citizens
      -Americans in hospitality live near the poverty line, tips anyone?
      So don't talk about an odd country. Yes, Japan has interesting traditions... tell me about the American ones!

    2. CG Guest

      Your first point is completely wrong: the percentage of US folks with passports is around 42, Japan sits around 23-24. So don’t talk about what you don’t know

    3. Wilo Guest

      having a passport doesn't necessarily means you travel:

      https://www.statista.com/statistics/214774/number-of-outbound-tourists-from-the-us/

      45 million travelers out of 340 million citizens means only 13% of them travel

    4. Dusty Guest

      Even worse, a vast majority of US "international travelers" are only visiting family or taking cruises/all-inclusive vacations in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

      I'll also take issue with @Brianair's warcrimes comment. Multiple Japanese governments have recognized and apologized for those atrocities. A handful of loudmouthed ultra-right wing politicians and netizens don't speak for the entire country, regardless of how much Korean and Chinese politicians like to pretend they do.

      Even worse, a vast majority of US "international travelers" are only visiting family or taking cruises/all-inclusive vacations in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

      I'll also take issue with @Brianair's warcrimes comment. Multiple Japanese governments have recognized and apologized for those atrocities. A handful of loudmouthed ultra-right wing politicians and netizens don't speak for the entire country, regardless of how much Korean and Chinese politicians like to pretend they do.

  10. Jaded platinum Guest

    I think we know where the Bud Light marketing geniuses landed.....

  11. Shiki Guest

    As a Japanese, I have to tell you there is absolutely nothing "tone deaf" about this ad.
    If anything, it is obnoxious how foreigners that do not even live in Japan get offended by what they beleive to be offensive to Japanese people, while understanding nothing.
    Ryokans in Japan are mostly small family owned cheap businesses.
    Of course, there are also big beautiful Ryokans, but here in Japan those are not even...

    As a Japanese, I have to tell you there is absolutely nothing "tone deaf" about this ad.
    If anything, it is obnoxious how foreigners that do not even live in Japan get offended by what they beleive to be offensive to Japanese people, while understanding nothing.
    Ryokans in Japan are mostly small family owned cheap businesses.
    Of course, there are also big beautiful Ryokans, but here in Japan those are not even really recognized as Ryokans, bit as Jaoanese style delux hotels, and ryokans are seen as small places to stay for cheap.
    Ryokans in Japanese popular media are usually depicted as old places managed by a single old lady with horrible service. That's why Ryokans are also one of the main settings for horror stories in Japan.

    1. Japan Starts Here Guest

      This is exactly what I came in here to post. ありがとうございました!

      Another important point is that this ad was put together by Hilton JAPAN, in other words by Japanese people for Japanese people. Western people were never part of the discussion at any point.

    2. Clem Diamond

      Shiki thanks for the insights and the perspective, this is very useful!

    3. innocenat New Member

      It literally blew up on Japanese X though.

    4. Firuton Guest

      A common stereotype in Japan is that non-Japanese cannot possibly understand the Japanese people, because they are 《special》.

      Ben, a non-Japanese, is trying to defend traditional Japanese inns. Are you so desperate to reinforce your stereotype that you support an attack on these inns by Hilton, a non-Japanese company?

      If Japanese people were not offended by the ad, then why did Hilton pull it?

      Some Japanese people are 《especially》 messed up.

  12. Clem Diamond

    I would pick a luxury ryokan any day over any Conrad lol, many of them are so much more luxurious and better. And yeah that ad is... concerning on so many levels.

    1. Sumo1 Guest

      agree to a point but two different experiences...
      Luxury Ryokan
      - Multi Course Kaiseki meals served in your room (dinner & breakfast)
      - Private Open Air Onsen bath from your room
      - Typically in a more remote location with natural hot springs, thus relaxed atmosphere
      - communal open air onsen bath in a nice setting, some with great views of nature
      - no Gym or Pool
      Conrad Tokyo

      agree to a point but two different experiences...
      Luxury Ryokan
      - Multi Course Kaiseki meals served in your room (dinner & breakfast)
      - Private Open Air Onsen bath from your room
      - Typically in a more remote location with natural hot springs, thus relaxed atmosphere
      - communal open air onsen bath in a nice setting, some with great views of nature
      - no Gym or Pool
      Conrad Tokyo
      - Metro Area (no balcony to take in the fresh air from your room)
      - Dinner not included
      - Breakfast included for 2 (if you have status with Hilton Honors)
      - use of Lounge but the offerings have been quite sad (free with Diamond status)
      - Gym and Pool Use (but they make you wear those swim caps, but enforcement has been laxed)

      thought whenever I'm in Japan, I will stay at both...

  13. Chris Guest

    Tone deaf?
    Beyond culturally incompetent into thoroughly incapable territory. Perhaps even new style dollar colonialism.
    Pity.
    I wonder how their (hopefully new) Japanese PR firm will advise handling this?

  14. Icarus Guest

    I’ve stayed in very nice Ryokans with almost no restrictions as to times etc.
    Or stay at a Hilton hotel which could be almost anywhere.

  15. Ole Guest

    A western brand going to a new country/culture, without caring to learn/understand about the country, belittle them for their ways of life, and condescendingly telling them why they are wrong and we are right. Have I seen this before?

    1. Samo Guest

      The ad isn't belittling anyone's way of life. It's belittling cheap crappy hotels. Since it's aimed at Japanese market, it's obviously using Japanese hotel as an example, exactly because the company did learn about the local customs (and I think it's quite likely that the campaign was created by local staff).

      Hilton actually does the same in the west, but no one in Europe will jump off the roof because a luxury hotel brand dared to make fun of local pensions.

  16. AC Guest

    I think the ad is made specific for it's target audience, the brash "don't tell me what to do" Americans that often don't know a thing about the destination's culture.
    There's a reason why a lot of the better ryokans don't accept foreign visitors and the foreign visitors who are "welcome" are ones who bother to learn the language and adapt to their culture (which definitely have it's benefits).

    1. mdande7 Diamond

      The ad is clearly aimed at Japanese... it's not in English or dubbed in any way.

    2. TravelinWilly Diamond

      "I think the ad is made specific for it's target audience, the brash "don't tell me what to do" Americans that often don't know a thing about the destination's culture."

      Really?

      Then why is the ad in Japanese?

  17. Bret Guest

    I’d take a high-end ryokan over a Conrad anyday. The onsen is often continuously open during the day and evening - it’s not much more difficult to keep track of than a hotel’s gym hours.

    Dinner is more set, but you often get a multi course omakase that blows hotel food out of the water. Breakfast isn’t any more difficult than in a hotel. And considering that you are probably staying in the mountains...

    I’d take a high-end ryokan over a Conrad anyday. The onsen is often continuously open during the day and evening - it’s not much more difficult to keep track of than a hotel’s gym hours.

    Dinner is more set, but you often get a multi course omakase that blows hotel food out of the water. Breakfast isn’t any more difficult than in a hotel. And considering that you are probably staying in the mountains if you are at a ryokan, you are much more likely to be in a relaxed atmosphere than a city hotel. I have had some amazingly relaxing experiences at ryokans. Less so when staying in city hotels.

    1. Japan Starts Here Guest

      The vast majority of ryokan are not high-end, though, which is the entire point of the ad.

    2. Mark Guest

      Neither are most hotels. If you're advertising Conran and comparing it to a budget ryokan, that's not comparing apples to apples. Anyone thinking of staying at a Conran would only be thinking of a pretty high-end ryokan as an alternative.

    3. Sumo1 Guest

      agree. The ad just misses the mark completely...
      it's like Conrad is trying to complete with Best Western Hotel in the US...
      if Conrad is trying to complete with a Ryokan for customers, I would assume the luxury ryokans which could cost north of $1,000 USD for two, which would include multi course kaiseki meals, nice breakfast, all delivered to your room and set-up nicely, private open air onsen bath from your room, etc.

  18. tom Guest

    Frankly, I think many visitors would actually agree with that ad. When I stayed at the LXR Roku (Hilton) in Kyoto, 90% of the guests were Japanese in their early forties or younger. I talked to a few and they were somewhat amused by this foreigner tourist longing for an "authentic" Japanese Ryokan experience. They viewed these hotels to be rigid and outdated. Younger Japanese have very different travel expectations than their ancestors.

    1. Julia Guest

      Nothing beats anecdotal examples as evidence of something.

    2. Timo Diamond

      This is not a scientific endeavor. It's a subjective opinion based on his "lived experience". This, IMO, appears to be fuss over nothing. The ad is fine. Let's focus on actual problems in the world instead.

    3. Tom Guest

      Yep, I stayed at a ryokan one time and rapidly got sick of the rules (you cannot put things in this area), the sleeping on the floor, and the fixed meal schedule.

  19. Samo Guest

    The funny thing about nationalism and all other forms of tribalism is that by trying to fight for their ego, these people actually make fool out of themselves. No one ever gained respect by fighting jokes.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

mdande7 Diamond

The ad is clearly aimed at Japanese... it's not in English or dubbed in any way.

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Shiki Guest

As a Japanese, I have to tell you there is absolutely nothing "tone deaf" about this ad. If anything, it is obnoxious how foreigners that do not even live in Japan get offended by what they beleive to be offensive to Japanese people, while understanding nothing. Ryokans in Japan are mostly small family owned cheap businesses. Of course, there are also big beautiful Ryokans, but here in Japan those are not even really recognized as Ryokans, bit as Jaoanese style delux hotels, and ryokans are seen as small places to stay for cheap. Ryokans in Japanese popular media are usually depicted as old places managed by a single old lady with horrible service. That's why Ryokans are also one of the main settings for horror stories in Japan.

4
Samo Guest

Where do you all get an idea that the campaign was made in the US? It's a local campaign for Japanese market, so it's reasonable to assume that this was made by the local team. US marketing department would hardly be aware of Japanese cultural stereotypes.

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