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Commercial success — and cultural


In advertising, success doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone involved. For the client, it means increased sales of his product, while for the copywriter it means cultural impact, and though there’s nothing that says these two successes can’t coincide, there’s also nothing that says they have to.

Take what is by far the year’s best and most influential TV spot, the one for Sapporo Beer with actors Tsutomu Yamazaki and Etsushi Toyokawa, dressed in yukata, playing a game of ping-pong. It’s obvious the two men are staying at a hot spring resort, maybe on a company excursion, and that they’ve just come from a soak and are probably drunk.

The Sapporo CM isn’t the first one that goofs on the fact that hot spring vacationers play ping-pong because it’s the only available form of recreation. It isn’t even the first liquor ad to do so. But no previous commercial deconstructed the game to reveal an interpersonal dynamic, and it does so with the winning of a single point.

Filmed in extreme slow motion, the POV keeps shifting as the younger Toyokawa hits the ball, which nicks the top of the net and then flies just out of the reach of the middle-aged Yamazaki, who leaps off his feet, in vain, to try and return it. He flies through the air with a horrible expression on his face (he seems to be screaming “Oh, no!”) and the POV shifts back to Toyokawa, pumping his fists in exultation while, behind him, Yamazaki’s airborne form vanishes below the horizon of the table’s edge.

The beauty of the spot is that it draws out a single moment of intensity without weakening that intensity in the least — and it does it with table tennis, a game in which each intense moment instantly gives way to another. The CM does the seemingly impossible: It makes ping-pong sexy.

The impact has been so great that table tennis is suddenly enjoying a huge surge of popularity among high school girls. The hottest activity in Shibuya right now is playing ping-pong at game centers. Keep in mind that the ad was first aired just before New Year’s, so it may have set a new record in trend-setting for a TV commercial. That’s the kind of success most copywriters only dream about.

Other companies have quickly jumped on the ping-pong bandwagon, however, and the situation can’t help but steal some of the economic thunder from Sapporo. Asahi Beer has launched its own table tennis commercial, and though it doesn’t attempt to be clever, it has a surface intensity that viewers with shorter attention spans (meaning most of them) will likely confuse with the Sapporo CM. Since Asahi Super Dry is the country’s leading brand, this is bad news for Sapporo Breweries, which is several ranks below. When ads copy one another they all inadvertently promote whichever brand is already on top.

Devi Sukarno seems to be everywhere. She’s the all-purpose middle-aged female media pundit of the moment, and she apparently enjoys the position and means to hold on to it.

Always referred to respectfully as “Devi Fujin” (Madame Devi), the Japanese-born widow of Indonesian strongman Sukarno, who was overthrown in 1968 and died under house arrest in 1970, maintains the poise and diction of someone who knows not only which piece of flatware at a state reception is which, but knows why it’s important to know it. According to her view of the world, she should be above the trivial concerns of celebrity journalists and the tabloid press, and at one time she stood in defiant opposition to their attentions. On several occasions in the past, she brought lawsuits against publications that wrote scandalous things about her.

Now she’s part of it. In the last two years she has increasingly appeared on TV as a commentator and talk show talent, and with the fall of Sachiyo Nomura a year ago she unofficially became the mature woman the media ran to for comments about anything and everything.

Last month, she published a collection of dryly acid opinions about specific show biz personalities. Her victims were shocked by her candid air of superiority (presented as worldly wisdom), and their recriminations are still providing fodder for the weeklies and wide shows. Unlike Nomura, however, whose imperiousness in the end couldn’t stand up to the backlash, Madame Devi has remained poised and cool.

One could say she sold her soul, but what exactly has she gotten in return? She’s already rich. She supposedly hobnobs with dukes and politicians and old money tycoons at her apartments in New York, Paris and Rome. What is she doing wasting her time with the running dogs of the Japanese media?

Vindication? Her story, though seemingly cooked-up in spots, is interesting, and has been recounted in detail on at least two different two-hour TV specials that have aired in the last four months. After her father’s business went bankrupt, she supported her family as a hostess while attending night high school.

Everyone knows that Devi was working in a Ginza club when she met the much older Sukarno in the 1960s, and though their marriage had a Cinderella quality to it, most people tend to think of her less as an Asian Grace Kelly than as a lucky courtesan.

Now that the prodigal daughter has returned to stay, she wants her fatted calf, namely her place in Japanese society as a woman to be admired and feared. She’s been through a lot (including jail), and believes that it gives her not only the right but the obligation to foist her ideas of civilized behavior onto the little people out there in television land.

Unlike most royalty, she was once just like them. But different.