Have you seen George Clooney’s coffee commercial lately? Or Leonardo DiCaprio’s commercial for Jim Beam? Or Harrison Ford pitching Kirin Beer? I didn’t think so. Because all of these commercials were made for foreign audiences, mainly Europe and Japan. Big stars are making big bucks either appearing in commercials that are never shown in the United States, or by lending their voice (and not their face) to commercials shown in America. How or why did this celebrity trend start?
The current theory about this phenomenon is that there’s a hierarchy to appearing in things, with films being the highest on the scale and commercials being the bottom rung on the celebrity ladder. (Of course, this is a theory that apparently is only the case in America or we would not have so many Hollywood types appearing in overseas commercials.) The thinking is that appearing in a commercial once you are famous (a relative term, for sure) will undermine or diminish your celebrity. I mean, how famous can you be if you still need to do commercials for the paycheck?
Arguably one of the biggest stars and best actors on the planet, George Clooney, defends making commercials because of the artistic decisions and lifestyle choices it allows him to make. During the 2012 Oscar season (when he was nominated for Best Actor for The Descendants) he said his goal at this point in his life is to make movies that have meaning and that doesn’t always translate into big box office. So he appears in smaller-budget movies (like The Descendants and The Ides of March) and takes a very low salary to help keep the costs down. (Of course, he does take a percentage of the movie’s profits so if it happens to do really well, he could make additional money). But his theory is that by doing commercials overseas – which pay him an awful lot of money – he doesn’t have to worry about starring in a blockbuster just to get a big payday.
Other stars that have cashed in big time are Julia Roberts (reportedly a $1 million payday for an Italian coffee commercial in which she never says a word. I hereby volunteer to shut up for as long as anyone wants me to for that kind of paycheck). Leonardo DiCaprio has done an ad for a Japanese mobile company, Gwyneth Paltrow did a martini commercial in Italy, Hugh Jackman dances his way through a Lipton Tea commercial in Japan, Sylvester Stallone promotes ice vodka in a Russian commercial, and apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger has done so many commercials in Japan that advertising executives have lost count.
Although more often than not the contracts these stars sign to appear in commercials are supposed to provide reassurances that they won’t be shown in the United States, I think we all know that, thanks to YouTube, everything is shown everywhere.
For those celebrities not willing to appear in person in a commercial (and for those less-than-A-list celebrities who are not as in demand as the Clooneys and Stallones of the world), doing voiceover work in commercials can be equally as lucrative. How often have you watched a commercial and wondered why the voice sounded familiar? (Although, if you’re my mother, you would have no idea if the voice sounds familiar because she hits the mute button every time a commercial comes on, advertisers love her). Have you watched a Hyundai or Duracell commercial recently? Jeff Bridges is the spokesman for both brands. Jon Hamm is the voice of Mercedes Benz. David Duchovny has done Pedigree Dog Food commercials for years and the great Gene Hackman (now retired from acting) does the Lowe’s commercials.
So next time you are tempted to fast forward through the commercials while you’re watching the show you’ve Tivo’d, please don’t. Celebrities need you to listen to them and buy the products they’re trying to sell you. It’s the American way.