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A Return to Their Roots : Campaigns Trumpet Companies' Japanese Side


Two current advertising campaigns are breaking new ground by hinting at corporate roots in Japan.

The spots from Union Bank of California, based in San Francisco, and Nissan Motor Corp. USA, based in Gardena, would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when "Buy American" fever ran high.

The Union Bank spot, filmed in San Francisco's Japantown, features a succession of images, from a traditional Japanese dancer to a woman in a kimono to the Japanese flag. The parent of Union Bank is Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd.

Nissan's commercials feature an actor playing the mystical "'Mr. K," a Japanese character in a Datsun baseball cap intended to embody the company's heritage. In one spot, created by TBWA Chiat/Day in Venice, Mr. K takes a young boy on a tour of a secret underground car museum filled with Nissan cars.

"We wanted to say, 'This is who we are.' Of course, that is a Japanese car company," said Tom Orbe, vice president of new-car sales at Nissan.

Orbe said the spots were debated within Nissan. He said dealers were squeamish at first, remembering the recession-fueled "Buy America" campaign of 1992, when companies such as Monsanto Chemical Corp. and Tosco Corp. paid rebates to employees who bought General Motors, Ford or Chrysler cars.

"We took a chance," said Orbe, who is pleased with the outcome. He is now considering merchandising shirts and radio-controlled cars based on the commercials.

Union Bank said it chose Japantown as a backdrop to illustrate the diversity of the California marketplace. Other commercials in its campaign show the Los Angeles Fashion District and Independence Day in Calexico.

Japanese corporations don't typically trumpet their heritage in advertising. Nissan competitor American Honda Motor Corp., in fact, has run ads pointing out that some of its cars are made in the U.S. That's in contrast to the way Volvo talks about Scandinavian winters in its pitches, for example.

"Japanese companies want to be seen as American or as international," said Kiyama Soichiro, executive director of the Japan Business Assn. in Los Angeles.

Using a Japanese figure may help Nissan set itself apart from other car makers, said Seiya Yoshihiro, vice president of Dentsu USA, a Japanese advertising agency in Los Angeles. But he does not think other Japanese firms will choose to play up their roots.

"Instead of saying that we are a Japanese company, we say we are an international company, one for the American people," said Yoshihiro, who handled Olympic advertising for Canon USA. "There is really no merit in being Japanese."

Tuning Out

A new survey from the San Francisco office of advertising agency Young & Rubicam suggests that Angelenos are busier setting trends than learning about them.

In a survey of how adults use media in 211 domestic cities, Angelenos said they spent far less time reading periodicals and watching TV than residents in such cities as soon-to-be-snowbound Utica, N.Y.

Angelenos spend three hours and 42 minutes watching TV daily, placing the city in the bottom 100 in television viewing. Los Angeles also ranks in the bottom 100 when it comes to reading newspapers and magazines. Why? Y&R's new-media director Ken Sacharin said Southern California's outdoor lifestyle means Angelenos spend less time indoors.

Los Angeles ranks near the top in two other media: radio and cyberspace. Thanks to legendary commutes, Angelenos spend three hours and 21 minutes a day listening to the radio. The city ranks 13th. (Miami is the nation's radio capital).

When it comes to online media, Angelenos are plugged in an average of 12 minutes a day--giving up some TV viewing to do so, said Sacharin. Los Angeles ranks 15th in online media usage. The nation's cybercapital is San Francisco/San Jose, where residents log in an average of 22 minutes daily.

Spirited Campaign

Angelenos will be among the first to hear previously banned hard liquor ads. Allied-Domecq Importers plans to air radio spots for its Hornitos tequila in Los Angeles and a handful of other cities, now that the distilled-spirits industry has lifted its voluntary prohibition on broadcast advertising. The Hornitos spots will begin airing Monday on Spanish-language radio, targeting adult listeners. The Federal Communications Commission opposes broadcast liquor ads, but its primary concern has been with television.

. . . Among the celebrities turning out for the opening bash of Bloomingdale's in Century City last week was Hollywood director Penny Marshall, a paid pitchwoman for Kmart Corp. Nonetheless, the discounter isn't questioning the loyalty of Marshall, who appears with pitching partner Rosie O'Donnell in several Kmart holiday spots.

Said Kmart spokeswoman Mary Lorencz: "She's not really an endorser for us. She's more like an actor playing herself."

. . . Nissan is launching its first advertising campaign aimed at Latinos, with spots planned for Spanish-language radio and television in Los Angeles and other large cities. Nissan is following the lead of other auto makers, including Honda, the current leader in sales of new passenger cars to Latinos, according to Honda advertising director Eric Conn.

. . . Video Storyboard Tests, an industry newsletter, has found that Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal is the second-most-recognized pitchman in sports, behind Chicago Bulls phenom Michael Jordan. By coincidence, Shaq's profile in Los Angeles is rising this week--by exactly 300 feet--with completion of a Reebok-sponsored mural at the Union Bank at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.

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