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The Stars Realign in Japan

Hollywood celebrities once commanded big bucks to pitch products overseas. Now, ad agencies and consumers prefer talent from Asia.

September 26, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Brad Pitt did it.

George Clooney and Meg Ryan did it.

Bill Murray pretended to do it. And back when he was just a celluloid action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger was very, very good at doing it.

But none of them does it much these days.

A Hollywood in-house secret, Japanese TV commercials were once talked about with a wink and a shake of the head. Piles of cash were paid to stars willing to peddle anything from whiskey to cigarettes, cars to coffee, instant noodles to cafe latte -- as long as nobody told the fans back home. Hey, did you know Dennis Hopper did one for bath products? How much do you figure Leonardo DiCaprio got for that SUV spot? A million? Three?

Sadly, the days of seeing, say, Harrison Ford guzzling Kirin beer may be over. American stars have not vanished from the Japanese advertising landscape, but their numbers have dropped dramatically since the heyday of the 1990s, when even Mickey Rourke was considered bankable here.

"There are much thinner pickings these days," said Al Soiseth, whose Japander.com website (as in Western stars "pandering" to Japanese audiences) offers a video compendium of Japanese commercials featuring Western actors. Soiseth says there is a dearth of new ads to add to the archive, which bursts with clips of Hollywood's 1990s "A list."

Advertising industry analysts offer various explanations for the decline. With the irrational exuberance of Japan's bubble economy a distant memory, ad budgets have shrunk to at best half their former size. Hollywood stars still expecting to pull in $3 million for an afternoon's work trying not to garble a simple Japanese phrase are finding few takers.

Japanese advertisers began using Western actors in a big way in the 1960s, when Hollywood represented the cachet of American culture. But some marketing analysts point out that the Internet and globalization have made American pop culture far more accessible to Japanese consumers and, by extension, less exotic.

"The mystique has faded," said Akihiko Sasamoto, who heads the Asian casting division of Hakuhodo, one of Japan's biggest advertising and marketing agencies. "You no longer have this distinction between foreign artists and Japanese artists. So we don't need to spend a big amount of money on a Hollywood star."

Japanese agencies are increasingly turning to more affordable home-grown talent, especially fashion models, who have been found to trigger higher recognition for the brands they push at much lower cost. Sports celebrities, whether homegrown, such as baseball's Ichiro Suzuki or foreigners such as French soccer star Zinedine Zidane, also have taken a big chunk of the endorsement business.

Other Japanese companies have opted to use animated figures or even real animals. Research in the Tokyo area shows that Que-chan, a Chihuahua whose owner is forever taking out loans (at 28%) to buy presents for the beloved dog, has had more impact this year than most two-legged stars. Que-chan's series of humorous ads, including one in which he snowboards down a mountain, have been credited with softening the loan industry's image. Meanwhile the actual dog has become enough of a celebrity to publish a book of vanity photos and release a CD.

Whatever the reason, Hollywood may be facing more than just a short-term dip in its commercial fortunes. Many in the world of Japanese advertising argue that the decreasing use of American stars marks a cultural watershed, in which Japanese audiences increasingly embrace stars and celebrities from Asia instead of the West.

"The Hollywood brand isn't the best anymore, and Hollywood actors aren't effective enough anymore," said Yukio Mori, president of Systrat Corp., a marketing and promotion consultancy in Tokyo. "Consumers are in favor of singers or artists who are familiar, rather than foreign movie stars."

The catalyst for the change, almost everyone agrees, has been Japan's raging love affair with Korean culture that took everyone here by surprise two years ago.

The phenomenon was spearheaded by a drama series called "Winter Sonata," a tragic love story featuring Bae Yong Joon, a South Korean actor affectionately referred to as Yon-sama in Japan. With his baby face and great teeth, Yon-sama, 33, flutters the hearts of Japanese women in their 30s and older, who tell market researchers he rekindles the romantic urges they felt in their youth.

It's a demographic that makes marketers swoon, too. Yon-sama is now the biggest foreign star in Japan. Bigger than Brad. Bigger than Leo. Dozens of Japanese companies are desperate to attach their brand to Yon-sama, or at least to find the next great Korean star.

"Five years ago, two years ago even, I could never have imagined this happening," said Tomoko Kamiguchi of Dentsu Casting & Entertainment, which negotiates with talent agencies to get stars for its clients' ads.

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