Why you should care

Because this was the most significant ad campaign in television history. You have our word on it. 

Through the years, few have perfected the art of shameless hyperbole so well as car salesmen and television advertisers. But until Japan’s Isuzu Motors, nobody had thought to put the two together — which they did in one unusual series of ads from the late 1980s featuring the unforgettable character Joe Isuzu.

Isuzu was founded in 1916, but it was not until 1981 that it began selling consumer and commercial vehicles under its own brand in the U.S. So when the company’s first SUV, the Trooper, was introduced in 1985, it knew that it had to do something bold to stand out from Toyota, Honda and the other brands dominating the foreign import market.

Sleaze was never more successful.

Isuzu did not just think outside the box. They did what any straight-laced Japanese firm or automaker would have deemed unthinkable at the time: They lied through their teeth. Openly and repeatedly. On television.

The company sank its entire ad budget into a campaign developed by Della Femina, Travisano & Partners that featured a sleazy Isuzu car salesman named Joe Isuzu whose claims, boasts and bald-faced lies were so brazen as to be endearing.

As the slick-suited Gordon Gekko-esque Joe made outrageous claims that Isuzu vehicles cost only $3, had more seats than the Astrodome and came with comprehensive dental coverage, his words — much like Stephen Colbert’s The Word segment years later — were chastised by text appearing at the bottom of the screen such as “He’s lying” and then providing the actual facts.

For example, as Joe, played by American actor and comedian David Leisure, promised that Isuzu would “throw in a free chauffeur” for the first 10,000 customers purchasing a new car, “Providing you pay for him” would appear on the screen. And nearly every ad came with Joe’s signature guarantee: “You have my word on it.”

Sleaze was never more successful. Neither Isuzu’s Japanese executives nor its American dealers found the ads particularly amusing, but television audiences fell in love with Joe Isuzu and millions responded by purchasing their first Isuzu vehicle.

In the end, like the ads themselves, Isuzu’s bold American ambitions outpaced economic reality, and the truth at the end of the lies was a harsh one. Or, as Joe himself might have crafted the company’s epilogue:

Isuzu became the most successful import brand in U.S. history.
(The company pulled out of the U.S. consumer market in 2009. Nobody really noticed.)

The beloved character of Joe Isuzu retired gracefully.
(The company brought Joe back for a series of spots from 1999 to 2001. The magic was gone.)

Actor David Leisure was recognized by the company for his iconic performance in service of its brand.
(Leisure was notified by mail in 1990 that his services were no longer required.)

Isuzu created a breakthrough advertising campaign that is remembered and studied to this day.
(That part’s true. Enjoy one of OZY’s favorite clips of Joe, invoking a Supreme Court justice to verify his claims.)

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