Foreign Stars Fill the TV Screen In Japan Selling Mundane Products


VISITORS to Japan have long felt at home during television commercials, which are populated by an all-star array of international celebrities that would impress even Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Museum.

Decades ago, French actor Alain Delon inaugurated the trend, soon followed by American tough-guy Charles Bronson. In recent years, the roster of stars has included Sean Connery, Sigourney Weaver, and muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger.

These days, Harrison Ford, Rod Stewart, and Peter Falk are gracing the airwaves.

It's as if Horace Greeley had said, ``Go East, famous person.''

But where Western celebrities were once routinely presented in skits that ranged from the absurd to the ridiculous - such as Mr. Schwarzenegger pumping it up with extra-large water kettles to promote a brand of noodles - they are now being cast in friendlier, more down-to-earth roles.

Mr. Ford's new ads give him a chance to practice his Japanese. In one scene, he learns to say, ``Kirin Lager Beer, please,'' from a flight attendant. In the next, he's impressing the crowd at a restaurant with the phrase.

Suddenly, Indiana Jones is no superhero; he's a guy with modest language skills. (Extremely modest: The phrase in Japanese is Kirin Raga Biru, kudasai.)

Akio Fukuoka, the man who created Schwarzenegger's surreal noodle commercials, confirms that something has changed in the way companies use ``foreign talent.''

``In the past,'' says Mr. Fukuoka, a creative director at Tokyo-based Dentsu Inc., Japan's dominant communications firm, ``foreign talent were used as superhumans, as heroes or heroines different from ordinary people, but nowadays they have become almost ordinary, normal people, as we are.''

A coffee ad featuring Jodie Foster has her pushing the product in a homey, almost meek way. Eddie Murphy appears on behalf of another coffee purveyor, confidently proclaiming his brand ``delicious'' in Japanese.

While Mr. Murphy is partying in his commercial, he is surrounded by what looks like a party of ordinary people.

(Coffee is a big deal here, since it's sold from vending machines, hot and cold, on every other corner. The hot cans are a little treacherous for the lower lip, however.)

``The biggest difference between Japanese and US television commercials,'' Fukuoka explains, ``is that in the States [companies] want to provide as much information as possible about the product. But in this country, the commercial is expected to create an image, to please the viewers, and to be an entertainment piece. Using foreign celebrities is one of the means to please the viewers.''

The Japanese are no longer as impressed by outlandish stunts as they once were, he says. So humor (as sparked by Ford's nascent linguistic gifts) and a feeling of common cause with the formerly superhuman are generating the most appeal among consumers here.

This is not to say that the old, bizarre marketing ploys are gone for good.

Actor Charlie Sheen appears in one advertisement for the Tokyo natural gas utility. He enters a room wearing a futuristic outfit and blasts a grandmotherly type who appears to be cold with a Ghostbusters-type apparatus that seems to warm her quite safely.

And the imported talent still leads to some odd juxtapositions. The other night, a special on the royal family drew to a close with scenes of Emperor Akihito waving to the camera. He smiled delicately. The credits rolled.

Then, practically in the Emperor's face, surged the boyish visage, heroic torso, and frenetic activity of Marky Mark, the rapper infamous in the United States for his Calvin Klein underwear commercials. In Japan, Mr. Mark promotes a soft drink. Marky Mark aside, it would be unusual to see such high-caliber stars stooping to sell consumer goods on television in their homelands.

``Here in the States,'' says Ford's manager, Pat McQueeny, ``he wouldn't do it because it would overexpose him.''

Apparently, celebrity exposure is like sunshine; too much can burn you.

Ford does it in Japan, Ms. McQueeny explains by telephone from Los Angeles, ``because he's so popular there.''

There's also the little matter of what Japanese advertisers can afford to pay, even in the current recession.

McQueeny calls the $500,000 to $1 million range, which some Western celebrities rate here for an endorsement, ``way low'' for Ford. She declined to be more specific.

Of course, Japan, and Tokyo, in particular, draw a lot of foreigners in search of fortune. There are bankers and brokers and traders. There are entrepreneurs and those who would open Japan's famously closed markets.

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