U.S. Stars Shine Again in Japan Ads

Cameron Diaz looms over Tokyo shoppers in a SoftBank cellphone ad. As Japan revels in growth, top-dollar celebrity commercials have made a comeback.
Cameron Diaz looms over Tokyo shoppers in a SoftBank cellphone ad. As Japan revels in growth, top-dollar celebrity commercials have made a comeback. (By Mariko Yasumoto -- The Washington Post)

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By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 14, 2007

TOKYO -- Forget the rising stock market or fifth straight year of economic growth. The latest sign of Japan Inc.'s comeback is Cameron Diaz in a slinky black dress gabbing on a phone and strutting to the tune of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" on Japanese television. But this is no film trailer or wacky guest appearance -- it's a 30-second commercial for a cellular telephone company.

And Diaz is hardly alone. As the decade-long recession drifts into memory here, the "Only in Japan" celebrity commercial is enjoying a sudden comeback -- with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson and Kiefer Sutherland among the American stars coming back down to earth in Japan to peddle everything from dairy products to power bars.

Long a guilty financial pleasure of the Hollywood A-list -- and one that is increasingly difficult to keep under wraps in the Internet age -- the so-called "OIJ" ad emerged and bloomed during the 1970s and '80s. Named because of strict deals forbidding distribution or publicity outside Japan, such ads offered a chance for megastars to blatantly cash in on their fame while maintaining loftier images at home, where top-grossing movie actors might deign to pitch high-end perfume or elite watches, but rarely food or whiskey.

Not so in Japan, where Sylvester Stallone in his highflying Rambo period made a real killing pitching packaged ham in the 1980s. In the same era, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the "Terminator" star and future California governor, flogged Cup o' Noodles to on-the-go Japanese even as he was taking off at the box office back home.

That changed after Japan's economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, leaving Japanese companies unable or unwilling to shell out for Tinseltown's highest earners. Best illustrated by Bill Murray in 2003's Oscar-winning film "Lost in Translation" -- he played an aging actor whose top offer came from a Japanese whiskey maker -- the Only in Japan ads of the '90s were mere shadows of their predecessors.

A big name would appear every now and then -- Madonna did a shochu liquor commercial in 1995. But the Japanese ad scene became mostly dominated by cheaper Hollywood B-listers and domestic celebrities. In the early 2000s, an out-of-the-spotlight Sharon Stone showed up on Tokyo tubes plugging jewelry. Liv Tyler, one of the elves from the "Lord of the Rings" movies, could be seen lovingly inhaling the rich aroma of a local brand of coffee.

But as this nation revels in its longest period of economic growth since World War II ended, Japanese companies are dusting the cobwebs off their advertising budgets and hiring the big guns again. It's opening the door for a whole new generation of top Hollywood celebrities to moonlight for extra millions.

Last year, Japanese companies spent an estimated $52 billion on domestic ad campaigns -- the second-highest figure of the postwar era, according to Dentsu Inc., Japan's largest advertising firm.

"The companies' revenues have recovered, and they're hiring the big stars again," said Hideo Shinada, columnist for Nikkei Entertainment, a monthly industry magazine. "These are commercials they would never do in the United States because they're eager to protect their images there. But Japan is different and very far away."

In the Internet age, however, it has become harder and harder for stars to keep their Japanese forays quiet. Vigilant users of YouTube, for instance, have begun posting Pitt's and Diaz's cellphone commercials for anyone with a modem to see.

Some Japanese companies have had to scramble to fulfill their contractual agreements with stars to confine the spots to Japan by requesting the removal of ads posted on the Internet without permission. But often, the ads are quickly re-posted by other users.

"Japanese companies are going to have to keep playing a futile game of cat-and-mouse to keep these commercials private," said Hideto Takada, a copyright specialist at the Japan Advertisers Association.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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