Say Sayonara to the Soft Sell

Article excerpt

The Land of the Rising Sun has aplace in its heart for stars -- especially American ones.

While former Trade Representative Mickey Kantor could manage only a draw over automobile quotas and Japanese officials have fits at the very thought of importing American rice, American pop singers and movie stars have created a very profitable niche for themselves in the world's second-largest advertising venue.

Brad Pitt pitches for Toyota. Charlie Sheen shills for Parliament cigarettes. And Brooke Shields recently was featured in a long-running series of commercials trying to convince viewers that nothing comes between her and her Nescafe coffee, not even acting lessons. Sometimes the juxtaposition of product and celebrity creates an unintended satire: Sylvester Stallone's spot for Nippon Ham, for example.

In most commercials, the stars don't speak Japanese. (Harrison Ford's stumbling endorsement of Kirin Lager is a notable exception.) So what is it about Americans that gets them such an enviable chunk of an annual $40 billion industry?

Masato Omiya, a marketing specialist and regional sales manager for corporate giant Kowa Pharmaceutical, believes the reason is foreigners' watchability. "This trend goes to the origins of modern-day Japan," he says. "Up until the 19th century, Japan was almost completely closed off from the rest of the world -- one race, one language, one culture.... Now there are many foreigners in Tokyo, and of course Okinawa, but in many other places, foreigners are still unusual. If they walk on the street, everybody watches them."

Omiya's also has his own theory: "Maybe the average Japanese audience thinks that everything is bigger and better in America, so by using foreigners an advertising company can make its product look cooler to more people."

Any Japanese older than 55 has at least some firsthand recollection of what happened during World War II. Warmth and respect for Americans wouldn't seem to follow. "People who think that way are one war behind the times," says the 26-year-old Omiya. "In the long struggle against the communists in Russia and China, Japan and the U.S. were allies."

Despite ticket prices that average $16 a seat, American movies are the most popular in Japan, a phenomenon Omiya says is explained by bigger capital outlays. …