Commercial suicide

Shogo Hagiwara tells us how Michael Owen has helped Real Madrid in the Japanese market

In Japan, A-list celebrities from overseas often endorse products – from canned coffee to cheap shampoo – that they would never purchase in their lives. Footballers are no exception. David Beckham is, of course, as ubiquitous here as everywhere else in the world.

Not long ago, Zinedine Zidane showed off his skills in an instant noodle commercial, dribbling an old-fashioned copper kettle through the middle of a park before stopping to taste Nissin’s cup noodle with a beaming smile. Italian referee Pierluigi Collina has promoted Takoyaki octopus dumplings, having been hired for the advert simply because his bald head is reminiscent of an octopus’s. Michael Owen is the latest, starring in an advert for suit retailer Yofuku no Aoyama. He made his debut for Aoyama last December, heading the ball into the back of the net then taking off his suit trousers in celebration.

Owen’s commercial debut troubled Japanese football fans. He may not be as glamorous as Becks, but he is highly respected. Aoyama, on the other hand, are not exactly in the top flight of suit retailers. Their target customers are low-income or middle-class salaried workers and the company claims to have been registered in the Guinness Book of Records for selling most suits in a year. They are roughly the Japanese equivalent of Top Man or Mr Byrite: quantity matters more than quality.

Owen was rested by Aoyama until a recent comeback. This time, he’s not even given a chance to show off his footballing skills, let alone take off clothes. He appears only towards the end of the commercial with Aoyama’s sales slogan, “Owen de Ouen”. Ouen (pronounced like Owen) means “support” in Japanese, so the slogan means “We support you with Owen”. Clutching the ball, he then says “Yofuku no Aoyama!” (Clothier Aoyama) while punching in the air. The company’s name is mispronounced but this seems to have been deliberate, though whether Owen was told is unclear. This time he’s in one of the so-called “recruit suits” that only job-hunting twentysomethings with little money at their disposal would choose to wear.

Actors, footballers and the stars of the country’s most popular sport, baseball, all do commercials in Japan to improve their public image, not to have their hard-earned social status undermined by it. But Owen seems to be going down the latter road for reasons only known to himself.

From WSC 215 January 2005. What was happening this month