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Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Stars strive to be normal guys . . . and you buy it


During the 1980s bubble era it was almost obscene how much money Japanese companies overspent on things they didn't really need. In the media world, this extravagance was manifested in the hiring of foreign celebrities to appear in TV commercials.

Stars who wouldn't be caught dead in "CMs" back in their native countries were happy to take huge paychecks from Japanese advertisers because they didn't have to worry about the ads making it back home. (This was well before dawn of the Web site YouTube). Actor Charles Bronson supposedly started the trend in the early '70s with his commercials for the after-shave lotion Mandom. At the time, Bronson wasn't very popular here, but the ads were such a hit that his subsequent movies performed well at the box office in Japan.

As the trend grew with the economy, it was enough just to have a foreign star in an ad, even if all he or she did was smile. Japanese advertising has always been more concerned with creating an image than with selling a product, even if the two have always gone hand in hand. The whole point was impact. Viewers who saw Woody Allen in a spot for Seibu didn't believe he shopped there, but they were impressed that the department store could talk the reclusive director into appearing at all.

This practice started to fall off in the mid-'90s as advertisers became less self-conscious about Japan's position in the world. Though the economy wasn't as hot as it used to be there was nothing left to prove, and for the most part they used local celebrities, targeting specific demographics with Japanese stars who spoke to those demographics in their own language.

Nowadays, Japan's pop culture is as internationally admired as its economy was envied in the '80s, and there's been a resurgence of CMs featuring well-known foreign celebrities that reflects this change in attitude.

The most pertinent change is a willingness on these celebrities' part to poke fun at themselves. Self-ridicule has always been a staple of Japanese comedy, but in the past no one dared ask foreign stars to follow suit; which isn't to say that the stars didn't come across as less than dignified. Madonna waving a samurai sword at a creature that looked as if it has escaped from "The Neverending Story" in a CM for shochu, or Harrison Ford slowly turning Japanese in a series of ads for Kirin Beer, are probably jobs both would just as soon forget.

But consider Uri Geller, who appears in two current 15-second spots for Nissan. In one of them, the Israeli "paranormalist" does his world-famous spoon-bending trick while saying that he intends to "bend" the viewer's thinking that he or she "does not need to buy a new car." In the other spot, he shows a picture of his own automobile covered in cutlery.

It's not clear how these CMs are supposed to persuade viewers to visit their local Nissan dealership, but anyone familiar with Geller's star turn in the '70s will probably find them amusing. Since his heyday, Geller's purported powers, which include telekinesis, mind-reading and dowsing, have been repeatedly debunked. He has always insisted that his powers are not tricks, but the Nissan spots show that he isn't above making fun of them. The spoon in the first ad doesn't just bend, it twirls.

Kiefer Sutherland's professional alter-ego, the harried counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer in the hit TV series "24," had already become a self-parody before he was hired to recreate the character in a series of ads for Calorie Mate energy snacks.

In the series, Bauer does his cliffhanging thing accompanied by a Japanese police detective named Matchan (Toshinobu Matsuo), who tends to be distracted. While Bauer feverishly tries to disarm a bomb, Matchan asks if it's OK to eat the last Calorie Mate bar in the pack. As the pair rush over rooftops and down flights of stairs, he attempts to present Jack with a souvenir of Tokyo.

The energy snack connection is immediately understandable to anyone who has watched "24" and wondered when Bauer ever has time to eat anything. Sutherland barks and glowers as fiercely as he does on the show, proving that he knows how easy it is to make fun of the character.

Though the Geller and Sutherland commercials have impact, they aren't necessarily up to the creative standards that the best Japanese advertisements are famous for. They certainly aren't as ingenious as the ongoing series of Boss canned coffee spots featuring Tommy Lee Jones.

The "Alien Jones" spots make fun of not only the Hollywood actor's famously dour visage, but also Japan's image as an economically competitive powerhouse.

Jones is an extraterrestrial sent to study the habits of humans, though he seems to only observe Japanese. In one CM he gets a job in a warehouse and finds that the reason "they are obsessed with work" is that "they like getting tired."

In another spot, he works for a discount store and comes to the conclusion that "they love to buy things they don't need." Except for the word ichi-kyuppa -- "198," the price of the thing he's hawking in this CM, he never talks in these ads. Nor does he smile or display any emotion. He truly is the uncomprehending gaijin, but the point seems to be that the behavior he witnesses isn't logical to begin with.

In all three of these CM series, Sutherland, Geller and Lee Jones convey the idea that they don't take themselves seriously as stars. Their willingness to be brought down a notch or two makes them more appealing than the foreign stars who appeared in ads in the 1980s, who were simply being famous. The current CM for Nescafe, featuring Meg Ryan, is more in that vein. She works hard to embody her image of being cute and warm, and the effort is off-putting. You think less of coffee and more about whether or not she had some work done around the mouth.



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