In the ’80s and ’90s, it was totally standard for Hollywood superstars for do ad campaigns overseas. Before the internet made all content international, it was unlikely that any of their US audience would see their Japanese ads.
Even today, major actors are still willing to be the face of products in sometimes ludicrous campaigns because they offer major paydays, even for those used to Hollywood budgets. The commercial shoots, which typically take an average of three days, are estimated to pay between $1-3 million for A-List Hollywood stars.
11 Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones is best-known for playing roles like stern law-enforcement officials and cowboys, but for 13 years he was the face of a Japanese ad campaign for the beverage company Suntory, specifically Boss canned coffee. His role? An alien who is observing human life.
The brand is still massive today, and Boss Canned Coffee vending machines can be seen on street corners all around Japan – all with actor Tommy Lee Jones’s face on them!
10 Brad Pitt
Starring in Japanese ad campaigns isn’t only something that Hollywood stars did in the 80s. Brad Pitt frequently stars in campaigns, from a disgruntled office worker for Roots to one of Japan’s biggest cell phone carriers, Softbank. In 2009, he co-starred in a popular commercial where he tried to entertain 1999 Sumo champion Musashimaru.
9 Justin Bieber
Brad Pitt isn’t the only modern star cashing in on campaigns overseas. Justin Bieber also did commercials for Softbank – but instead of co-starring with a sumo champ, the pop star teamed up with comedian Pikotaro (known in the US for the “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” song.) The ad depicts the two causing an “unexpected” stir at a school.
Unlike the ad campaigns of decades gone by, there was no pretense that the pop star’s American fans wouldn’t see the commercial. Official accounts were sharing behind the scenes images before it even aired.
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8 Harrison Ford
In the mid-90s, Indiana Jones star Harrison Ford did an ad campaign for a popular beer called Kirin Beer. One clip from the campaign gained internet fame – Ford in a sauna drinking an imaginary beer.
The beer is still as popular as ever, and in 2014 hired George Clooney for a new TV ad.
7 Arnold Schwarznegger
Many Hollywood superstars did ad campaigns overseas to make money (most of which weren’t initially seen in the US before the internet made them well-known) but few did as many as Terminator star Arnold Schwarznegger. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he was the face of multiple ad campaigns in Japan – including one where he is a superhero who rides the product through space.
6 Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis has been in multiple Japanese ad campaigns, including Kowa Coffee (which also tapped Schwarznegger) and Daihatsu combustion engines – which features Willis speaking a little Japanese.
Musical icon Madonna also took advantage of making commercials in Japan. Like Harrison Ford, she was the face of an alcohol brand – in her case, sake. The star wielded a katana blade and fought off a massive golden dragon for a drink.
4 Nicolas Cage
Nicolas Cage has done a wide variety of commercials for Japanese audiences, including promotion for the company Sankyo. They are the makers of a game called Pachinko, which is somewhere between pinball and slots. Players win small metal balls which can be traded for prizes. In one memorable ad, Cage dramatically sings the name of the game over and over again at the piano, naming it as one of his favorite things.
3 Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman has shown his range before, going from action star of the X-Men films to singing and dancing in musicals, but few know that he has also used his abilities to promote a US brand overseas: Lipton Iced Tea.
The ads were part of a global campaign by the brand, and feature an extensive choreographed dance routine for Jackman (who had a three year contract with Lipton.) Unlike the campaigns stars did for overseas audiences in the 80s and 90s, there was no attempt to keep these ads “hidden” from Jackman’s usual fans. The campaign was part of Lipton Ice Tea’s “Drink Positive” marketing strategy and was also released online.
2 Keanu Reeves
This sultry ’90s thriller starring Keanu Reeves was actually just a commercial for a Japanese whiskey called Suntory Reserve. It’s a stormy night, and the star appears to be composing at his keyboard, when he is startled by a cat breaking into his lux apartment – who then transforms into a mysterious woman. Luckily all she wants is to give him a whiskey…
1 John Travolta
In a long-running series of bright and flashy commercials from the mid-80s, John Travolta swaggered and danced among girls twirling cans of “Tokyo Drink” – which was frequently the star’s only line!
Although you wouldn’t know it from the commercials, the ads were part of an attempt to revitalize the product. The beverage is an alcohol called shochu, and it was far from trendy at the time – but renaming it “Tokyo Drink” and having a Hollywood A-Lister the face of the product was game changer.
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Sources: Business Insider, Culture Trip, Campaign, Next Shark, Tech Crunch, Teen Vogue, The Guardian, NY Times
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