Letter From Tokyo: Star Power

Japanese creative directors know one way to achieve client success: Reach for the stars. Indeed, more than 70 percent of all Japanese commercials feature a celebrity. Most are Japanese, but a highly visible minority come from star central: Hollywood.
Casting executives at Hakuhodo, Japan’s No. 2 agency, estimate that out of 1,400 talent campaigns they handle annually, a dozen involve Western stars. “Often, we’ll develop a campaign using foreign talent when pitching new business,” says Kiyota Nishioka, Hakuhodo’s casting manager. And stardom sells.
A survey by the Video Research Co. found that 90 percent of Japanese ads rated as likeable, popular or memorable by consumers used celebrities. Michael Moon, an account director at Ogilvy & Mather Japan, believes one reason is timing. “Nearly all Japanese commercials are only 15 seconds long. There’s a lot of clutter. It’s an environment where an unexpected glimpse of a familiar face can help a commercial reach viewers.”
Believe it. More than 10 years ago, magic Madonna was credited with doubling Mitsubishi Electric’s share of the VCR market to 8 percent. Another diva, Kathleen Battle, put Nikka Whisky on the map, while Arnold Schwarzenegger revitalized Nissin’s stagnating Cup Noodles. All three performers achieved initial fame in Japan through advertising. Faith is the real power that sustains Japan’s allegiance to star appeal.
The star-studded trend began in the early 1970s, when Bristol Myers’ success with Vitalis threatened to put an old-fashioned Japanese toiletry firm out of business. It was Dentsu to the rescue. The agency gave the company a modern name, Mandom, and scripted TV spots with Charles Bronson. This inspired tactic not only saved the company, it created a new genre in Japanese advertising.
Dentsu followed its Bronson coup by recruiting David Niven and Alain Delon for fashion company Renown, Orson Welles for Nikka Whisky and Sammy Davis Jr. for Suntory White. Hakuhodo persuaded Paul Newman to advertise Nissan’s Skyline. Since then, more than 500 Western stars have graced Japanese ads.
Still, celebrity carries its own warning label. “It’s a very cyclical business these days. If foreign talent is hot one year, it’s out of fashion the next,” says Yoshiko Shirotori, a producer at Creative Enterprise International, a production company specializing in foreign talent commercials.
In addition, Japan’s lingering recession, coupled with a weak yen, makes it painful to shell out million-dollar fees. And because consumers are more sophisticated, foreign faces are not the magnets they once were. Plus, there’s a new word in the Asian lexicon: relevancy.
“It is getting harder,” says Ben Shinoda, editor of Nikkei Entertainment, a magazine that has chronicled the phenomenon. “It’s no longer enough to trophy a well-known Western icon. Stars now are asked to relate to the products they advertise, even to speak Japanese.” Stars must do more than stumble comically through a Japanese sentence, as Jack Nicklaus did when he helped American Express launch their gold card in Japan 20 years ago.
Rambo may single-handedly annihilate a village, but Sylvester Stallone is barely able to utter “Delicious!” in Japanese while eating Ito Ham’s sausages. “Even [Japanese-fluent] Steven Seagal doesn’t sound right to many ears. Foreign talent should at least be able to pronounce product names as they sound to Japanese ears,” adds Shinoda.
Relevancy also means finding a closer fit between a star’s personality and marketing objectives. This point is neatly illustrated in Ogilvy’s spots for American Express’ green card which use Tiger Woods. In age and aspiration, Tiger is akin to the young men the card wants to attract. Moreover, Woods brings an international dimension to the pitch. It’s easy to see this in a parallel campaign from Asatsu, where Tiger’s drive turns on Tokyo’s neon lights to promote Asahi’s Wonda canned coffee.
Though Seagal’s commercials for an energy drink are loosely modeled on his action movies, as are Quentin Tarantino’s for Perfect TV, ads boast a new twist. Rather than employ Hollywood stars in the roles that earned them fame, scenes from daily life are used. In a Hakuhodo spot for Shimano Fishing, we catch site of a young man reeling in his catch. He half turns to the camera and we see Michael J. Fox. The golfer puzzling over his shot in a Hakuhodo spot for Camellia Diamonds is Die Hard’s Bruce Willis. And isn’t that Jodie Foster driving a Honda?
Given the A-list of stars, there is endless speculation about fees. Contracts regularly include nondisclosure clauses, which keep lips–and pocketbooks–sealed. Ever since Farrah Fawcett successfully sued Hakuhodo two decades ago for releasing her Camellia Diamonds spot to CBS, agencies have been loathe to preen their star power to the press.
According to one agency source, until 1988, Hollywood’s superstars were routinely paid about $500,000 for a one-year contract–making two or three spots. Then prices rose to $1 million, with a rare $1.5 million earmarked for Schwarzenegger. By 1990, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reported that Eddie Murphy earned a cool $3 million for a Hakuhodo campaign for Toyota’s Celica. The latest jackpot winner is the ubiquitous Woods, who won a $15 million fee in ’97 for a three-year deal with Asahi.
Competitive bids from soft-drink makers escalated Wood’s fee. Paradoxically, McCann-Erickson helped market leader Coca-Cola’s Georgia win a 50 percent share of the canned-coffee market using Japanese talent. “The ceiling used to be $2 million,” says Kunihiro Takenaka, a Dentsu casting director. “Frankly, there is no upper limit now. High prices can be justified because the right star can become a corporate symbol, changing the image of a company and its brands.”
These days, it’s athletes who make the grade in Japan. The Michael Jordan campaign for Nike, courtesy of McCann-Erickson/Weiden & Kennedy, was one of last year’s prize winners at the All Japan Commercial Film Festival awards.
“Many, including myself, thought this one of the best brand campaigns of 1997,” says Ogilvy’s creative director, Joe Okura. It was also one of the most lucrative for Nike. Thanks to the campaign, a pair of used Air Jordans in good condition went for $700 in Tokyo’s resale market, since stores sold out the day stocks arrived! Rising global TV audiences for international sports events have made a trip to Tokyo’s agencies due diligence for agents and promoters.
And stars come in many varieties. Bill Clinton’s first inauguration was celebrated by a Fuji Film spot. Clinton joined Margaret Thatcher, who appeared in a Kanebo Cosmetics campaign, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who pitched Ikegami Camera.
The Clinton coup was engineered by Tokyu Agency’s Makota Baba. Though he generally eschews star appeal, he capitalizes on its relevancy factor, hence Ringo Starr’s role promoting canned apple juice. He may be a Beatle to Westerners, but to the Japanese, Ringo just means apple. David Kilburn can be reached at kilburn pobox.com