In the beginning, there was Charles Bronson. He was followed by James Coburn, casually lighting up a cigarette, and Paul Newman behind the wheel of a Nissan.
By the mid-'80s, the floodgates opened and dozens of Hollywood's big-screen stars were selling products on Japan's small screens. America's top entertainment talent was hawking everything from Japanese Scotch to instant noodles, mobile phones, and chewing gum.
But not anymore. The American face no longer sells so well in Japan, which has undergone a shift in advertising tactics to embrace its homegrown talents and Asian screen stars who have become more prominent in recent years.
"From the mid-1980s to the early '90s, Japan enjoyed a period of prosperity the like of which it had rarely experienced before, and Japanese companies also spent big on advertising," said Akihiko Sasamoto, Asian casting supervisor for advertising agency Hakuhodo Inc.
"Some companies tried to promote their eminence by landing Hollywood stars and other high-fee celebrities for the advertising," he said. "Those were the glory days for Hollywood stars in advertising in Japan."
Corporations were keen to have Harrison Ford quaff their beer or Sylvester Stallone heft a ham. Even the Muppets got in on the act by endorsing a broadband Internet service, and the Simpsons drank CC Lemon.
All that began to change when Japan's economic miracle suddenly hit the buffers in the late '90s. "Moving products became the issue, and moving housewives--who actually hold the purse strings--became the main thrust of marketing activities," Sasamoto said.
"For this reason, Japanese celebrities and Korean stars, who have been riding a wave in Japan recently and who are familiar to housewives here, appear much more frequently than Western stars," he added. "Korean and Taiwanese entertainment has been enjoying a boom in Japan in the last two or three years, and that boom is valuable because it offers the novelty of something that people have never had the opportunity of experiencing before."
Today, none of the big companies is willing to reveal how much they paid Hollywood's stars for their appearances or even release images that graced TV screens here.
The companies that previously employed Hollywood's biggest names, however, deny a deliberate change in policy.
"Each commercial is created based on the concept and the target for the product," said Kazushige Tsutaya, a spokesman for Osaka-based Nissin Food Products Co.
In the past, Nissin's adverts involved Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed as a superhero to promote instant noodles, as well as vintage footage of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
"The ads made a contribution to sales," Tsutaya said, "but today our mainstay brands are mostly presented by famous Japanese actors, actresses, models, and musicians."
Sony prefers to let its products do the talking, according to spokesman Gerald Cavanagh, though it quickly saw the potential in one of the biggest Asian names to grace Japanese screens recently.
"Sony's approach to using domestic and foreign talent in commercials is perhaps a bit different from other companies," Cavanagh said. "We do it occasionally--for example, we used the Korean actor Bae Yong-Joon in some digital imaging ads--but generally we refrain.
"We usually put the product or technology center stage," he said.
A similar strategy is employed by Nissan, 25 years after Newman zipped around in a red Skyline in a campaign that saw the car dubbed the Newman Skyline.
"Our advertising is focused on our products and brand," said Steve Wilhite, head of global marketing at Nissan. "We do not rely on stars to sell our products and have not had any foreign actress appearing in our commercials in Japan since 1999. We do use Japanese stars from time to time, depending on the character of the model, but we mostly use ordinary people who represent our potential customers."