Japan's latest TV personality may lack grace, but it sure can promote cars

Japan's latest, and most unlikely, television personality and cult figure is a grotesque Australian lizard with an ungainly ambulatory technique. The nation has taken the creature to its heart since it was adopted by a leading car manufacturer for its TV commercials.

A fan club has been established to cope with the boom in popularity. Lizard dolls have begun to appear on the market, along with announced plans for T-shirts, picture books, photographs, and an animated film series.

In their street games, Japanese youngsters even try to emulate the lizard's lumbering run, which is the main feature of the TV commercials.

The Neckpiece Lizard (also called the Frilled Lizard) is a species of tree lizard common to northeastern Australia. An adult measures some 60 to 70 centimeters (24 to 28 inches) in length. Its distinctive feature is a flap of skin around the neck which flares up whenever the reptile becomes excited or is facing danger. If the tactic fails to scare off the threat, the lizard then makes a dash for safety on its two hind legs, lurching from side to side.

It is this combination of courage and flight that seems to appeal to Japanese TV viewers. The lizard made its debut in a regular television program on animals screened in April 1983, and was eventually voted by viewers ''the most popular species of the year.''

But real fame only came this April when the Mitsubishi car company picked it to star in its commercials. It illustrates a very important point about Japanese product advertising, particularly on television.

The bulk of the Mitsubishi commercial features the lizard flaring up its neckpiece and then bolting across the desert toward the horizon. (A recent TV program on the making of the commercial showed production staff achieving the desired affect by dangling a snake close to the lizard).

The car being promoted makes only a brief appearance at the very end. And at no time is there a serious attempt made to link the lizard to the product.

Noriko Fukuchi, spokesperson for Daichi Kikaku, the Tokyo advertising agency that created the commercial, explains: ''Japanese advertising very much emphasizes the soft sell. The most important thing is to create a mood or effect that will be pleasing to the viewers, usually either romantic or amusing. The idea is that they should be entertained at the same time as they are being quietly encouraged to buy the product.''

Radio Research Company, which compiles an annual report on TV commerical ratings, says the most popular commercials are those of a ''fantastical or comic nature,'' particularly featuring animals. Apart from the lizard, pandas and koala bears are currently ''in.''

Akira Maeda, a journalist who has lived in the United States, comments: ''I find Japanese TV commercials normally much more sophisticated - and even intellectual - than American ones.

''In fact, there are some Japanese commercials I don't even understand. And it's often hard as you are watching to predict what the product being promoted is going to be.''

Japanese advertising agencies and their clients don't stint on budget to produce memorable commercials. There has been a major trend for some years to use foreign personalities, who sometimes become better known in Japan for these commercials than for their original achievements.

Among Americans currently popular in such commercial breaks are tennis star John McEnroe (promoting Japanese cars), golfer Jack Nicklaus (American Express), film stars Kirk Douglas (coffee), Paul Newman (cars), and John Travolta (soft drinks). The Neckpiece Lizard, however, is probably the most popular.

Says Daichi Kikaku's Fukuchi: ''I think the popularity reflects society's current attitudes. It is the image of the lizard attempting to resist its enemies, but when that fails, making a run for it, that appeals to people.''

This may reflect the attributes of honne and tatemae constantly warring within the Japanese spirit. The lizard, in first standing its ground, could be said to be behaving in accordance with society's perceived ideal (tatemae) of courage. It then accepts the reality of the situation (honne) by turning tail.

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