The Awkward Ads That Inspired 'Lost in Translation'

The Awkward Ads That Inspired 'Lost in Translation'

Why you should care

Because U.S. stars look very different to foreign eyes.

Harangued by a shaggy-haired Japanese director, Bob Harris purrs into the camera: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” Bill Murray’s character in 2003’s Lost in Translation was a fictional send-up of a Hollywood star hawking whiskey in Tokyo, but it was inspired by decades of American stars chasing big paydays across the Pacific. The spots can seem bizarre and downright silly to American eyes, and for that very reason, they were often kept from us. That, however, was before the wonder of YouTube. Let’s take a stroll down a fun-house mirror of memory lane.

Recognizable white celebrities have been popping up in Japanese advertising for decades. In the 1960s, the Japanese economy was taking off, and corporations had money to burn to make a splash — particularly in the go-go ’80s. Experts say white celebrities from the U.S. or Europe were used to give the impression that the advertised products were acceptable and well-known outside of Japan. “The West denoted style, sophistication and prowess for a Japanese society that was just getting back on its feet,” says T.J.M. Holden, a research associate at Harvard University’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. “Today, of course, we’re well beyond subsistence. And what Japanese consume, as well as how they consume, matters, because it sends signals about who they are — not just as consumers, but as people.”

The spots often endeavored to make a specific brand stand out in a crowded market. Some were eye catching for their sheer insanity — witness Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger emerging like a genie from an energy drink bottle, wearing a garish costume and laughing maniacally as gold coins rain down around him.

The ads also could tell a complex story with social commentary. Tommy Lee Jones is a fairly recognizable actor in the U.S.; in Japan, he’s a household name for his long-running ad campaigns borrowing supernatural elements from the Men In Black films. A campaign for Boss canned coffee casts Jones as a superpower-wielding alien who has come to “investigate” Japan. (In crossover spots for SoftBank telecommunications company, “Alien Jones” joins a talking dog.) For an insular society yearning for global attention and respect, this connotes that Japan is worth inspecting. Consistent with Japan’s isolationist, exclusionary history, a foreigner qualifies as a space alien, Holden says. Jones goes undercover everywhere from a factory and a school to a karaoke nightclub, skewering work habits or materialism. “He looks at different aspects of Japanese culture,” Holden says, but unlike previous Japanese ad tropes, “many of his investigations carry a cynical tenor — not toward Americans per se, but towards Japanese themselves.” It’s as if, Holden explains, the Japanese advertiser is saying, “ ‘Aren’t Japanese people strange? Contemporary society is not the way it ought to be.’ ”

Local and foreign celebrities are unusually common in Japanese advertising, with one study finding that 47 percent of TV ads in 1998 featured celebrity endorsers, compared with 20 percent in the U.S. But Japan-watchers say there has been a noticeable decline in famous American faces hawking local products. The stumbles of the Japanese economy have played a role, along with more careful use of advertising budgets. “This was not a difficult discussion maybe 10 years ago,” says Claudia Cristovao, creative director at AKQA ad agency in Tokyo. “Now … worldwide there’s more awareness that you get a very specific type of value when you engage a celebrity on that level.” Cristovao notes how there are more restrictions on how much money gets tossed around for these spots.

There’s also the new technological twist that the work is viewable by American eyes. Because of long-held stigmas, American stars would use a “secrecy clause” to make sure the spots could not be viewed outside Japan — and once the internet blossomed, celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, fought to have the ads removed from the Web. These days, though, the fear that appearing in TV ads will tarnish a celebrity has faded. America’s movie stars proudly flash their American Express card or openly marvel at an iPhone.

The inspiration for the fictional Bob Harris experience came from Suntory ads involving legendary directors Akira Kurosawa and Francis Ford Coppola awkwardly palling around on set and then relaxing with a drink. Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, wrote and directed Lost in Translation, a tale of alienation that turned into a surprising smash hit. Oddly enough, in a 2013 interview, Sofia Coppola recalled the Suntory shoot as taking place not in Tokyo, but at the Coppola home in San Francisco.

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