Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock & Other Jazz Musicians Sell Whisky & Spirits in Classic Japanese TV Commercials

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 AllenNico­las 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 30-Minute Intro­duc­tion to Japan­ese Jazz from the 1970s: Like Japan­ese Whisky, It’s Under­rat­ed, But Very High Qual­i­ty

Watch Aki­ra Kuro­sawa & Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la in Japan­ese Whisky Ads from 1979: The Inspi­ra­tion for Lost in Trans­la­tion

The Best Com­mer­cial Ever? James Brown Sells Miso Soup (1992)

Nico­las Cage, Paul New­man & Den­nis Hop­per Bring Their Amer­i­can Style to Japan­ese Com­mer­cials

Woody Allen Lives the “Deli­cious Life” in Ear­ly-80s Japan­ese Com­mer­cials

Glo­ri­ous Ear­ly 20th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Ads for Beer, Smokes & Sake (1902–1954)

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.

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  • Girish Trived says:

    Thought the doc­u­men­tary was humor­ous.

    For me the asso­ci­a­tion of Han­cock, Carter, Davis was unimag­in­able.

    Fact though is that Jazz is great­ly fol­lowed and admired by cer­tain Japan­ese Jazz Affi­ciana­dos.

    Tons of years ago a trip to Japan was slat­ed includ­ing Art Pep­per with the Cal Tjder group but since Pep­per then was deep in drugs the pro­mot­ers had thought Pep­per may not even get a visa; how­ev­er, Pep­per did get it and not much pub­lic­i­ty was giv­en to him being a part of the group.

    After 2 shows the word spread that Pep­per was play­ing, on the 3 Rd show his fol­low­ers were wall to wall and when Pep­per came on the stage to play even before he played a sin­gle note, the crowd gave him a thun­der­ous stand­ing ova­tion.🙏

  • Chris M says:

    Hen­ry Thread­g­ill was in an ad for Dewar’s Scotch Whisky at the tail end of the 80s, in a series called Dewar’s Pro­file.

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