Western stars want cash but not publicity from Japanese advertisements

 

Some people will do anything for money, but it's always interesting to see how far the rich will go to pad out their already bulging bank accounts.

Take A-list Hollywood celebrities, for example. At somewhere from $10 million (€11.2 million) to $25 million per movie, you might think they would be happy with their lot.

But being paid bundles of money for flitting themselves across a few hours of celluloid has not stopped hundreds of stars from being blinded by the glare of Japanese cash.

Over the years, a steady troop of Western celebrities have been persuaded by Japan's giant advertising agencies Dentsu and Hakuhodo to endorse everything from cold coffee to luxury cars.

Some act according to stereotype. An intense, heavily muscled Demi Moore bursting out of her sweaty T-shirt as she works out for a sports drink commercial, or Keanu Reeves needing a stiff drink of Japanese whiskey after a beautiful fan comes on a little too strong, probably will not damage their hard-won Western street cred too much.

Others, however, pick up what's left of their dignity with the cheque on the way out the door. Dennis Hopper once sat in a bathtub with a rubber duck to promote a body wash.

And Harrison Ford could be found most nights on mid-1990s Japanese TV wearing nothing but a towel in a sauna as he wrapped his handsome mouth around the legend "Kirin Lagaa Beer kudasaih?" (Could I have a Kirin Lager Beer, please?). And how would fans of British punk rock group The Clash, who swore they would never sell out, react to the knowledge that their hero's classic cover of I Fought the Law currently garnishes a Nissan sports utility commercial?

Dying is no escape, either. Several departed celebs have been commercially resurrected by presumably hard-up relatives to flog Japanese products.

Audrey Hepburn's dainty hands can be spotted in subway adverts mysteriously gripping a bottle of cold tea that did not exist when she was alive.

And poor old sanitised John Lennon, forever linked to Japan through his marriage to the obviously poverty-stricken Yoko Ono, has been dragged into service to promote coffee and pot noodles.

In the latter commercial, Japanese movie star Nagase Masatoshi is spliced Forest Gump-like into Lennon's kitchen as he clowns around during the Imagine sessions of the early 1970s.

The Japanese mass media has a long history of using foreign stars to promote its products. Sean Connery, for example, has helped over the years to sell Mazda cars, Japanese whiskey and, er, ham, and Stevie Wonder (coffee), Jodie Foster (English language schools) and Rod Stewart (cars) have all supped at the brimming cup of Japanese advertising budgets.

But these are rare examples of celebrities who have remained in the A-list, which tends to follow very closely the stateside fortunes of foreign talent.

So Charlie Sheen, for example, who was all over the Japanese mass media in the mid1990s advertising everything from shoes to gas heaters, is now nowhere to be seen, but hunk-of-the-month Brad Pitt currently endorses jeans and coffee. And Tiger Woods, hugely popular in golf-mad Japan, can be seen flickering across TV screens most nights gulping down canned coffee.

Some have resisted the pull of Japanese advertising cash. Julia Roberts, whose Pretty Woman was a huge hit here, apparently turned down a lot of money to make a commercial.

At somewhere from $1 million to $3 million for an average of three days' work, it is not difficult to figure out why the celebrities sometimes do daft things for Japanese audiences. And often they do not even need to come to Japan.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid more than $3 million in the mid-1990s for a vitamin-drink ad shot in the US according to Forbes magazine.

For that kind of money, advertising execs can sometimes even coax a few words of Japanese from their expensive talent. Mostly, though, one easily understood English word or phrase will do. "Striking!" (Sean Connery in a car commercial) and "Oh My God!" (Ewan McGregor for an English conversation chain school), are examples.

The deal works fine for both parties as long as the embarrassing, credibility-destroying endorsements do not leak out of Japan.

But a couple of years ago a Canadian website company called Zero One Design, set up by two men who had lived and worked in Tokyo, began putting some of the offending commercials up on a website called "gaijin a go-go" on http:// www.gaijinagogo.com/.

Curious browsers were amused to see Meg Ryan washing her face with a Japanese face cream and Arnold Schwarzenegger plugging a satellite TV service for DirecTV.

Schwarzenegger was so upset his lawyers forced gaijin a go-go to pull the video last August, but the ensuing publicity resulted in four million hits a month to the previously little-known site.

But if the star's motivation is crystal clear, the rationale from the Japanese side is more complex. "Association with wellknown Western movie stars obviously helps raise the profile of the product enormously," says media expert Koichi Kobayashi of Tokyo University.

A-list celebs, usually fresh from Japanese box-office hits, are used to distinguish one almost identical product from another in Japan's crowded and sophisticated consumer market.

But why foreign stars? Western visitors to Japan are often struck by the prevalence of white Western models in advertisements (one study puts the number at 25 per cent) and what appears to be the sometimes unhealthy idolisation of stardom.

"There is less cynicism about stardom here than I've seen in Western countries," says Kobayashi. "People will often watch very bad movies with famous stars."

The stock answer is that this is another example of Western cultural imperialism, but in reality, Western images are not simply being absorbed, they are being reinterpreted in very sophisticated ways.

"The core of Japanese culture is really quite resistant to foreign influence because most Japanese have a very strong self-image of themselves as Japanese," says media critic Tetsuo Kogawa.

In the same way Western advertising firms tap into myths about an inscrutable, exotic Oriental culture to sell curries, tea and high-tech goods, Japanese firms have their own reservoir of Western images to draw on.

And given the long involvement of Western countries in Japanese affairs, especially America's, the reservoir is that much bigger.

For many Japanese people who live and work in a crowded, ordered, and often hierarchical society, many Western images signify freedom and mobility and even an exotic otherness. And it is these qualities that advertisers often try to attach to their coffee, cars and cigarettes.

It is doubtful, of course, that Sylvester Stallone thinks of himself as the bearer of exotic otherness as he stuffs away a fat cheque, as he did not so long ago for endorsing gift-wrapped hams. But the apparently soft money is the result of a long history of complex relations between Japan and the West.