Ever since I started reporting on Japan in the late 1980s, American actors have been the star of local auto ads.
It’s about getting a simple message across to an attentive audience in 15-second time slots, the standard length of Japanese TV commercials. First, by using renowned talent, the product is designed to be cool and attractive and the viewers will remember the product. And if the American actor can insert a few choice Japanese words to express the merits of this new car, so much the better for the adoring locals.
For example, when Michael J. Fox, just released from his 1985 hit film Back to the future Said “kakko Integra” meaning “beautiful Integra”, in a 1989 Honda Integra commercial, this phrase became so popular that it quickly turned into local pop culture. Then a few years later, Honda moved on to Brad Pitt to promote the Integra and blurted out “Integra Nottegra Honda”, which is a play on words but basically means “I drive a Honda Integra”.
Around the same time Fox was citing his lines for Honda in 1989, Kevin Costner was starring in the just launched first-generation Subaru Legacy commercial. Subaru must have gotten some major traction with the star of The Untouchables, because they followed over the next two decades with stars like Robert De Niro, Mel Gibson, Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Willis, Antonio Banderas and Winona Ryder promoting not only Legacy models but also Outback and Forester. Legendary British rocker Rod Stewart even had a fight to promote the Legacy.
Male stars are featured heavily in many Japanese car commercials, but as we saw with Lopez and Ryder riding for Subaru in the 90s, Thesilenceofthelambs star Jodie Foster appeared in a Honda Civic ad playfully saying “Ferio,” which was a version of the Japanese Civic.
Most recently, around 2013, Bruce Willis was back in Japan to film a commercial for a car, but this time he was uttering Japanese slogans for the Daihatsu Mira e: S (pronounced “ees”) micro-minivan. The star of the Die hard The franchise has reportedly agreed to a fee of over $ 1 million for an upcoming 3-day shoot in a pack of five short commercials for the tiny 660cc Mira ‘e: S’.
In a commercial, Willis asks the director if the Mira is selling well. The director replies, “Yes, Bruce, this is selling very well. In response, Willis turns to an assistant and says in Japanese, “The car is selling because of my star power, isn’t it?” To this, the director said wryly, “Ah, he still doesn’t understand that the car is the star.” These ads turned out to be as entertaining and witty as Men in black Star Tommy Lee Jones’ 2011 Suntory Boss Coffee commercial series, in which he plays a human-like alien trying to figure out human behavior.
Oddly enough, the last foreign talent to appear in an auto commercial was not an American actor but a French actor and star of Leon and Impossible mission, Jean Reno. He played a flying robotic cat called Doraemon in a series of Toyota commercials from 2012 to 2014 and uttered many strategic Japanese phrases like “Oikakeru? Take-copter-o ”, which means“ You want to chase them with my bamboo helicopter?
In the near future we may see someone from the Avengers Where Fast and furious appearing in a Toyota, Subaru or Honda advertisement. Or maybe an ageless Willis could return to star in a new Daihatsu commercial. That’s if the automaker can justify a seven-figure budget in these tough times.