Earlier this month, teen golf sensation Ryo Ishikawa was driving his Audi when he was stopped by police and told that his international driver’s license, obtained in the United States, was not valid in Japan. It was an innocent faux pas, but Ishikawa was forced to apologize profusely through the media for “causing trouble to my sponsors and fans.” Note the order of priority.

Ishikawa reportedly earns in excess of ¥1 billion a year from endorsements. So far none of the companies he shills for have dropped him for his mistake. Advertisers normally insert clauses in contracts stipulating that they can immediately void the agreement if the celebrity spokesperson is involved in a circumstance that compromises his or her image. The only crime Ishikawa is guilty of in the driver’s license incident was being naive, which may simply reinforce his popular image of being boyishly earnest.

Seventeen companies have invested in Ishikawa. According to the media research company Nihon Monitor, that’s a record number of endorsements. Though prominent sports figures have always been pursued for advertisements, idols tend to receive the bulk of attention in Japan, and for a basic reason. Idols were created to be in ads. Though they ostensibly act or sing or model, the measure of their success is how many TV commercials they make, since that’s where the money is.

Ishikawa’s nearest competitor is actress Aya Ueto, who currently appears in 13 TV commercials. Closing in are Aibu Saki with 12 and perennial SMAP sex symbol Takuya Kimura with 11. More significantly, a number of celebrity-dedicated websites claim that Ishikawa commands up to ¥120 million per ad, which also seems to be a record, at least for one person. SMAP as a five-member group received at least ¥300 million from SoftBank. Most idols earn between ¥35 million and ¥60 million per job, and the point is to get as many as possible.

Westerners may be puzzled by the logic of hiring celebrities who already front for other companies. Media critic Yukichi Amano once remarked that this practice is self-defeating: If an idol does ads for 10 different companies, a viewer is likely to only remember the most prominent one, meaning the other nine end up being promotions for that one company. However, as a representative of the ad agency Hakuhodo DY Media Partners recently told Asahi Shimbun, the point of using popular celebrities is to “keep TV viewers in their seats while the commercials are on.”

Ishikawa leads a trio of athletes who right now dominate broadcast advertising. Major League baseball star Ichiro Suzuki, who currently appears in seven commercials, receives about ¥100 million for each. Figure skater Mao Asada also appears in seven. Other athletes popular with advertisers include Olympic swimmer Kosuke Kitajima (¥20 million, down from ¥40 million), golfer Ai Miyazato (¥35 million), pitcher Yu Darvish (¥40 million), and major leaguers Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka (¥40 million each). The big topic in the industry right now is when Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters’ rookie pitcher Yuki Saito, one of the most popular high school baseball players ever, will deign to make a commercial. It’s been reported he can ask for at least ¥50 million.

What determines the desirability of an athlete is, according to a “consultant for sporting events” interviewed by the Asahi, whether or not the person plays on the “international stage.” The success of Ichiro, Ishikawa and Asada overseas is what makes them appealing to advertisers. “They represent Japan as fighting the world,” said the consultant.

Except for a few Olympians, the activities of Japanese sport figures used to be limited to Japan and advertisers simply tapped into their popularity, but they had to offer added value. Shigeo Nagashima, the most beloved player in the history of Japanese baseball, was the only athlete who commanded the sort of fees a top idol would, owing to his demeanor, which was transparent, cheerful and sincere. Another strategy was to confound the received image. Takamiyama, the first foreign sumo wrestler to make it into the upper ranks, made a famous commercial in 1977 for National (now Panasonic) in which he tap danced.

Though the experts quoted by Asahi contend that today’s ads featuring athletes are more “skillful” in drawing out their subjects’ individualized appeal — Ishikawa’s “freshness,” Ichiro’s “virility,” Asada’s general adorability — since they aren’t trained actors there’s still a noticeable stiffness to their delivery. Ichiro strains to convey a passion for Kirin beer or an intellectual appreciation for clean energy in Eneos petroleum ads. When he’s swinging a bat or running down a fly ball in a commercial, there’s no problem. However talentless idols are, they’re good at one thing: Shaping their image to fit the product they’re selling.

In that regard, the best athlete-affiliated ad at the moment is one for the home security company Alsok. Some years ago, Alsok contracted several judo stars to appear in its ads, and when these proved successful it added Olympic wrestler Saori Yoshida, who, as it happens, was an employee of the company. Yoshida was characteristically stiff, but the ads were built around a choreographed calisthenic that took advantage of her muscularity and good humor.

Her new Alsok ads have proven to be enormously popular. Utilizing a visual style that recalls cheapo superhero TV series from 40 years ago, the ads feature Yoshida in shock freeze frames where her normally passive expression comes across as a kind of battle readiness: She’ll protect your home or die trying. As a nominal “amateur” wrestler, Yoshida has few opportunities to boost her public profile through her chosen sport, but she’s already been hired to join four other more famous athletes for a series of Asahi Beer ads. She may turn out to be, in the parlance of both sports and advertising, a game-changer.

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