I like to think that, when the occasion arises, I can speak passable Japanese. But pride goeth before the fall, and I fell flat on my first attempt to order a whisky in Tokyo. To my request for a Suntory neat the bartender responded only with embarrassed incomprehension. I repeated myself, pushing my Japanified pronunciation to parodic limits: saaan-to-riii nee-to. At some point the man deciphered my linguistic flailing. “Ah,” he said, brightening, “suuu-to-raaay-to?” To think that I could have handled this situation with dignity had I but seen the Suntory commercial above, in which Herbie Hancock suggests having a drink “straight.”
Would even the maddest men of the American advertising industry countenance the idea of putting a jazz musician in a commercial? Japan thinks differently, however, and in its economic-bubble era of the 1970s and 80s thought more differently still.
At that time, Japanese television spots — at least those commissioned by sufficiently deep-pocketed companies — began featuring American celebrities like James Brown, Woody Allen, Nicolas Cage, Paul Newman, and Dennis Hopper. A 1979 Suntory ad that put Francis Ford Coppola alongside Akira Kurosawa would, a quarter-century on, inspire Coppola’s daughter Sofia to dramatize a similar East-meets-West commercial situation in her film Lost in Translation.
Of all the things American embraced (and repurposed) by Japan after its defeat in the Second World War, jazz music has maintained the most intensely enthusiastic fan base. Japanese-made jazz has long been a formidable genre of its own, just as Japanese-made whisky has long held its own with the Western varieties. But when the makers of Japanese whisky made an effort to sell their own product on television to the newly wealthy Japanese people, they looked to American jazzmen to give it a shot of authenticity. Having recruited Hancock to promote drinking their single-malt whisky at room temperature, Suntory got bassist Ron Carter as well as both Branford and Ellis Marsalis to promote drinking it hot.
Could the cultural association between jazz and whisky extend to other liquors? That was the gambit of a 1987 commercial featuring Miles Davis, recently investigated by InsideHook’s Aaron Goldfarb. Its product: shōchū, “a colorless, odorless, yet often challenging spirit typically distilled from rice (known as kome-jochu), barley (mugi-jochu) or sweet potatoes (imo-jochu).” Newly launched with an apparent intent to pitch that staid beverage to moneyed younger people, the brand VAN hired Davis to play a few notes on his trumpet, then take a sip of its shōchū and pronounce it a “miracle.” He also describes himself as “always on the vanguard,” hence, presumably, the name VAN (though its being reminiscent of VAN JACKET, the company that had earlier brought Ivy League style to the same target demographic, couldn’t have been unwelcome).
Though Davis’ brand of cool did its part for the success of Honda scooters and TDK cassette tapes, it proved not to be enough for VAN shōchū. The brand “was a big flop and had a very short life,” Goldfarb quotes an industry expert as saying, “probably because shōchū is so quintessentially Japanese, and a foreign-style shōchū just didn’t make sense to most.” Perhaps the commercial itself also lacked the pleasurable simplicity of Suntory’s many jazz-oriented spots, none of which turned out simpler or more pleasurable than the one with Sammy Davis Jr. performing a cappella just above. In the process of pouring himself a drink Davis plays the part of an entire jazz combo, using only his mouth and the objects at hand, including the ice in his glass. The concept wouldn’t have worked quite so well had he taken his Suntory neat — or rather, straight.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.