Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Cars, stars, and TV commercials

May 20, 2009

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In these hard times, you know a car is important when the maker hires Robert de Niro to promote it.

That honour goes to Subaru’s new flagship Legacy touring wagon, which went on sale in Japan today. Fuji Heavy Industries (which owns the Subaru brand) even put out a press release last week just to say the two-time Oscar winner would appear in its TV commercials in Japan.

“It’s the first time he’s appearing in a commercial for a Japanese company – ever,” a Fuji Heavy spokesman told me proudly the other day. He guessed that Hollywood actors are “twice, three times, or four times more expensive” to hire than a local celebrity.

It is well-known that international movie and rock stars get lucrative work moonlighting in Japanese TV commercials - witness the famous gadzillion-dollar Mitsubishi Electric VCR commercials in the late 80s starring Madonna. This tradition was even parodied in the film “Lost in Translation”, in which Bill Murray plays a Hollywood has-been actor filming a whiskey commercial in Tokyo.

A sampling from my late-night YouTube-ing yesterday offered the following roster, for cars alone:

- Paul Newman: Nissan Skyline, for its 25th anniversary (1982)
- Harrison Ford: Honda Legend (1993)
- Dennis Hopper: Toyota Celica (1994)
- Anthony Hopkins: Honda Avancier (“Let’s have a thrilling time,” a la Hannibal Lecter)
- Ewan McGregor: Toyota Alphard (recently)
- Jean Reno: also, Toyota Alphard, and separately, Honda Orthia
- Rowan Atkinson: Oddly, as Mr Bean (who drives a Mini) promoting a Nissan Tino
- George Clooney: Honda Odyssey, Toyota Mark II

subaru-legacySubaru had a bunch: Kyle McLaughlin in an Impreza commercial in 1992 and Antonio Banderas for the Forester. Ads for the past four versions of the Legacy have been graced by Bruce Willis (1st), Rod Stewart and Mel Gibson (2nd), Kevin Costner and J-Lo (3rd) and Bruce Willis again (4th).

Leonardo DiCaprio, known for his private endorsement of the second-generation Toyota Prius, was all over the place, selling Honda’s Civic in 1995, Suzuki’s WagonR in 1999 and Toyota’s “Hybrid Synergy Drive” system more recently.

A memorable one for me when I was growing up was Michael J. Fox in a series of ads for Honda’s Integra sports car as the Marty McFly character in the 80s classic “Back to the Future”, complete with Huey Lewis & the News’ “Power of Love” playing in the back.

And while we’re in the 80s, then-teenage heart-throb Rob Lowe had the unfortunate one-liner, “Hip-conscious!” in a 15-second clip for Suzuki’s Cultus hatchback.

The 80s were obviously a good decade for Japanese carmakers, as the economy worked its way into a bubble. Maybe it’s just me, but the car commercials these days seem fairly low-budget. Toyota, for its most important car launch this year – the all-new Prius — has TV actor Matthew Bomer playing Clark Kent/Superman in a commercial. And Honda’s rival Insight car? The Peanuts. No offense, Charlie Brown.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Ran Kim, Subaru

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