It seems unlikely that a 30-year-old Kleenex ad spawned a batch of urban legends that still circulate today, but that’s exactly what happened after a Japanese Kleenex commercial was yanked off the air in 1986.
The lead actress in the commercial is said to have birthed a "demon baby” and died. Other theories revolve around the cast and crew dying mysterious deaths, similar to urban legends that surround the Exorcist, Poltergeist, and other supposedly cursed movies.
Japanese urban legends are often based on vengeful spirits who inflict brutal violence on the living. So why would a tissue commercial featuring a grumpy baby and lovely actress create such unease? Since the so-called cursed Kleenex commercial resurfaced on YouTube in 2006, it's said those who watch it become cursed themselves. Others claim that if you watch it after midnight, the commercial changes into something sinister.
Are any of these claims true? And if not, what is it about a simple jingle, a woman in white, and a baby dressed as an ogre that brings on the shivers in so many? Could the symbolism in the commercial contains subliminal messages that affect viewers on a subconscious level? Let's explore these questions and more by first breaking down the rumors that dog the ad, and then looking into what may be behind them: a deeper-than-usual dive into this odd commercial that was shot 30 years ago and still spooks today.
Rumor has it that shortly after this 1986 Kleenex commercial aired in Japan, viewers complained en masse that the ad was disturbing. The Kleenex commercial was reportedly pulled off the air, but that wasn’t the end of it. It resurfaced on YouTube on May 23, 2006, logging over a million hits.
Another theory surrounding the Kleenex commercial (similar to the plot of the Japanese movie Ringu and its American remake The Ring) is that anyone who watches will be cursed and/or die.
There are unverified claims that people have committed suicide after watching the ad, but this rumor may have cultural roots. Compared to other developed countries, Japan has a very high suicide rate, thought to be due in part to the intense pressure many Japanese feel to excel in school and work. Others point to large numbers of elderly people living alone to explain the large number of suicides. Technology-induced isolation of young people is also cited as a cause, as are lenient life insurance laws, and the belief that suicide can be honorable.
Despite the rumors, there don’t seem to be any verifiable reports of people dying after watching the commercial. In fact, the Horror Tree's Timothy Clax reported watching the commercial many times with no ill effects.
Of course, it is true that anyone watching the commercial will (eventually) die. Having said that, not watching the commercial does nothing to thwart the certainty of death, so it’s kind of a wash. It’s worth pointing out that belief in spirits of the afterlife, good and bad, is in itself an acknowledgement that the death of the body is not the end. So there's reason to be both terrified and hopeful.
Theories are still tossed around today about the commercial's cast and crew dying shortly after the ad ran on television. However, claims that the cast and crew of the Kleenex ad met their untimely deaths are murky and unsubstantiated.
One claim, that a camera man died in a sauna due to equipment failure, is perhaps a conjuring of a familiar trope. Still, rumors persist that “from producers to cameramen to gaffers, everyone even remotely related to the commercial died or suffered accidents or other misfortune.”
A few urban legends center around the idea that the commercial changes depending on how and when it is viewed. One theory is that the baby “red demon” changes into a “blue demon” if you record it and then play it back. Another purports that watching the video after midnight drives viewers insane.
An anonymous viewer uploaded a video of themselves recording the commercial, before and then after midnight, to the YouTube channel Shrouded Hand. Some commenters were quick to point out that video looked edited, and that the strange distortions, color changes, and other visuals were likely faked.
The folks behind Shrouded Hand say they had a strange power outage when they first tried to play the video:“All the lights in the house went out, and our laptop that we were playing the video on switched off instantly. Normally in a power cut, it would just switch to battery power and remain on.”