Charlie Sheen, Brooke Shields, and more stars hawk products in foreign commercials

By Jessica Shaw
Updated November 15, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

A little quiz to test your Hollywood IQ. Which of the following celebrity endorsements is fake: (a) Ringo Starr selling apple juice; (b) Charlie Sheen hawking air conditioners; or (c) Brooke Shields shilling for a vitamin drink?

All right, it’s a trick question: They’re all true. The reason you probably failed is that these campaigns, along with a legion of other ads featuring topflight Hollywood stars, can be seen only abroad. Flip through the pages of a magazine in Japan, Korea, or Italy and you’re liable to spot an Oscar winner promoting anything from noodles to shampoo. Yes, that is Mel Gibson in that Japanese car ad.

Considering Hollywood’s growing presence in the world market — overseas grosses of American films have boomed to more than $5 billion annually — international advertisers have a clear rationale for hiring an American star. ”They stand out,” says Hidekazu Aizawa, an executive at Dentsu, Japan’s largest ad agency. ”They make people look and watch.” But why would Hollywood’s finest, who often take the moral high road against selling their names in the U.S., consent to do so overseas?

The answer: a very quiet ka-ching. American celebs can earn from $500,000 to $2 million for a two-day shoot — without sacrificing their domestic personas. ”For some, there just isn’t enough money to make it worth their while to cheapen their image here,” says Michael Schau, editor of the New York-based trade Entertainment Marketing Letter. ”So they do it in Japan, where they pay massive amounts and swear that the ad will never go outside of the country.” (Japan, Korea, and, increasingly, Italy have been the countries most willing to pay the high cost of Hollywood.)

So there’s a star-studded reverse trade deficit at work. Harrison Ford was paid a reported $2 million for a series of Japanese beer commercials last year. Woody Allen directed several 1993 spots for Coop, an Italian supermarket, for a reported $1.5 million. Even former Beverly Hills, 90210 bad girl Shannen Doherty raked in $250,000 for four 30-second spots for LG Ad cosmetics in Korea. ”We looked at Winona Ryder, Sandra Bullock, Kim Basinger, and Demi Moore, but they were too expensive,” says LG Ad account manager Park Woon-Ki.

Of course, there are other factors contributing to this trend. Antonio Banderas agreed to hawk San Pellegrino hosiery in an Italian TV commercial when Giuseppe Tornatore, who’d made the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso, signed on to direct. And in some cases, using Hollywood stars is economical. ”Foreign actors are generally cheaper than Korean celebrities,” says Choi Seung-Jin, account executive for Cheil Communications, a major Korean ad agency. ”Ahn Sung-Ki [a popular Korean actor] might cost about $750,000 for a one-year contract. Richard Gere cost $500,000.”

Which is why international companies won’t sign just any old American star. In Japan, sales of Tsumura Bathclin bath products have taken off ever since a spot featuring Dennis Hopper playing with a rubber ducky began airing last October. But the decision to film the spot wasn’t a no-brainer for Tsumura. ”We weren’t too sure about using Hopper,” says company spokesman Yukihito Kagawa. ”But the ad shows a side of him no one knows, and the reaction has been tremendous.” Hopper’s decision was simpler. ”I couldn’t believe the money they were paying me,” says the actor. ”If I could do one of these every year, I could retire.”

Unlike Hopper, most celebs don’t want the public to know they sell products overseas (and thus won’t comment for stories such as this). Even though Jodie Foster, Mariah Carey, and Sean Connery all look sexy in their ads, they are tight-lipped about the business. Says a spokesman for one poster boy, ”Everyone knows it’s embarrassing to turn up in ads they wouldn’t be caught dead doing here.” Adds another industry source: ”It looks like they’re selling out. But if I was being offered $1 million to do a half day’s work, I’d do it too. Who wouldn’t?”