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Celebrity spokespeople a dead issue in Japan

Japan’s worst recession since World War II is forcing TV advertisers to find new ways of cutting costs: Forget the high fees paid to foreign celebrities; hire ones who no longer need the lucre.

So, to the familiar tune of his once-popular TV mystery series, the long-deceased Alfred Hitchcock appears on Japanese TV these days plugging the virtues of Toyota’s latest sedan model. A Japanese dubber, effectively mimicking Hitchcock’s voice, has the master of suspense advise viewers to “Mark the Mark II.”

“We don’t care if they are dead or alive,” declared a creative manager at Dentsu, the advertising agency that made the ad for Toyota. “The important thing is for them to have a strong impact. The use of dead foreign celebrities is a growing trend. We only have to pay 20% to 25% of the cost of top-class living artists. It’s better value for money.”

A survey of Japanese advertising companies reveals that several of them are planning to use famous dead foreigners for exclusive Japanese ad campaigns, something that has not been done before.

Three of Tokyo’s five commercial TV stations saw an average 5% fall in advertising revenue last year, according to figures provided by Dentsu. TV advertising in 1992 was about $ 14 billion or 30% of total ad expenditure, per Dentsu.

“One advantage with the dead,” says Shinobu Ina, the manager of Dentsu’s Talent Business Services Development department, “is that you don’t have to worry about being sued or about them embarrassing you with scandals that force you to pull the commercial.”

That is a particularly sore point with Japanese advertisers, who were forced to scrap expensive commercials featuring Rob Lowe, sprinter Ben Johnson and Pee-wee Herman after their scandals.

The very high prices commanded by living stars (both foreign and domestic) who appear in Japanese commercials is a major reason for enrolling the cut-rate dead. But there is another reason, which paranoid ad exex are quick to point out: Japanese commercials often offend foreign tastes (by including such things as vomiting stars) and living foreign celebs who participate invariably insist on a contract that prohibits airing the spots outside Japan.

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