Why Do American Actors Show Up In Japanese Commercials?

by Justin Sevakis,

Ava asked:

I stumbled upon a YouTube channel one night that plays Japanese commercials. Not just the "wacky" or "crazy" ones but it seems to be everything. I noticed a lot of familiar celebrity faces in the many many commercials for cars, women's fashion, and cell phone carriers. It got me wondering about the differences between Japan's entertainment industry and America's. You wouldn't see Katy Perry or Lady Gaga in commercials for anything that wasn't tied directly to them, but Kyary Pamyu Pamyu seemed to be everywhere this year and last year. As well as lots of comedians/tv stars selling phones and hair gel. Is it just because Japan is a smaller country so the talent is centralized or is it a difference in the way the agencies work?

It's true, major actors and musicians in the United States and Europe will almost never appear in a commercial. In the west, to be cool you have to be a little bit rebellious, and not seem beholden to "the man." Being in a commercial might mean some good money, but you also run the risk of looking like you've completely sold out, losing the faith of your fans. This is an attitude that's changing slowly, particularly with musicians. As the recording industry crumbled in the post-Napster era, musicians had to finally give in to ad agency demand and license their songs for use in advertising. The era of counterculture had long been over by that point, and so to the surprise of many, there was no backlash. In fact, new hit songs that appeared in ads ended up getting the exposure necessary to get people interested in a new song, something that's nearly impossible to do these days. It's now a foregone conclusion that the big dance pop or catchy indie pop song of the moment will find itself in an ad campaign within a month or so (sometimes before it even comes out).

But things are different in Japan. Asia has never really had that line in the sand between being successful and selling out. As actors and idols are beholden to their (usually very powerful) talent agency, they're more or less expected by the general public to be a dancing monkey. Need you to be in a dopey commercial for dish soap? No problem! How about a variety show in which you must wear a banana suit and eat a plate of spaghetti without your hands? Just tell me when and where! I can't even imagine a Western star doing anything like what Asian stars have to do, but the complete loss of ego and/or dignity seems to be an expected part of being a celebrity over there.

Japan also has an extremely outsized advertising industry for such a small country, and that industry has huge budgets. As as been pointed out in everything from the Conan O'Brien Show to the movie Lost in Translation, the money is SO good, American actors will go over there and shoot a silly ad, just for the paycheck. (Perhaps some of the older celebs are under the outdated delusion that Americans will never see it.) So yes, of course local Japanese talent will be in an ad or two and think nothing of it. It's all a part of one giant, coordinated marketing machine, and the celebrities are an active and willing cog.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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