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The Many Lies of Joe Isuzu

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IceManNYR via YouTube

Of the many Japanese car manufacturers dominating the domestic auto market in the 1980s, Isuzu wasn't the most recognizable. The company, which arrived in the U.S. in 1981, had an ad budget that was less than a tenth of Toyota’s. Even if there had been more money to spend, television spots for vehicles were notoriously cookie-cutter. There were always long shots of sedans on swerving roads, quiet cabins, and relaxed drivers. It was hard for consumers to tell one from another.

That all changed with Joe Isuzu, one of the most dishonest, unethical—and successful—car salesmen of all time.

From 1986 to 1990, actor David Leisure played the fictional automotive dealer who lied through his plastered-smile face, turning the modest car company into a household brand name. Making outrageous claims about the abilities of his cars with a “He’s Lying” disclaimer flashing onscreen, Leisure became instantly recognizable as an amusing send-up of the shady salesman cliché.

The only problem: Joe Isuzu was so popular that people forgot he was trying to sell cars.

The Isuzu campaign was developed by the ad agency Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, who had been tasked by the carmaker to boost their profile in the U.S. With a limited budget, the firm decided to focus on a salesman who never met a tale too tall. Isuzu boasted about cars costing $10.80 (he moved the decimal point), able to drive up mountains, or getting 300 miles to the gallon.

Jon Lovitz was the firm’s first choice for the role, having perfected insincerity as the Pathological Liar on Saturday Night Live. But the agency eventually went with Leisure, an actor who had bit parts in the Airplane! films and enjoyed a measure of success in a series of phone book ads in 1983. (Prior to that, he lived in his car—a Volkswagen.) He filmed just one Isuzu spot before being called in to do six more.

Despite dealerships being apprehensive over a parody of their own sales staff, the spots were an immediate hit. Isuzu hit a reported 18 percent spike in sales during the rest of the year, with Leisure achieving the kind of spokesman recognition reserved for cereal mascots. As Joe, he filmed a cross-promotional commercial for Burger King in 1988; four years later, he pushed A&W root beer. In a speech, Ronald Reagan compared Isuzu's huckster demeanor to that of Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega.

But Isuzu’s popularity had a troubling consequence. After the 1986 spurt in sales, the company sold roughly the same amount of vehicles in the first half of 1987. (Actually, 50 fewer.) Both Isuzu and advertising industry experts expressed concern that Isuzu was such an entertaining persona that people were actually paying more attention to him and less attention to the product he was selling—the car.

Isuzu attempted to highlight more product features in subsequent ads. Leisure, however, remained the focal point in the eyes of the audience. In 1990, after more than 40 appearances, he received a first-class letter telling him the company was retiring the campaign.

While Leisure found work in sitcoms like Empty Nest, a struggling Isuzu shifted its focus to trucks. In 2001, they resurrected Joe to push their new Axiom, but it did little to impact their modest sales. By 2008, just 7000 of the more than 16 million cars sold in the States bore an Isuzu label.

Leisure reprised the role a handful of times, most recently for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Owing to Isuzu exiting the U.S. sedan market in 2008, he’s one of the few corporate mascots to actually outlive the corporation that employed him. Speaking on the character’s fame in 1987, the actor was prophetic. “Maybe people love the commercials,” he said, “but don’t know much about the cars.”

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technology
The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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entertainment
The Bizarre Reason Burger King Wants to Keep It Out of Russia
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For decades, Burger King and McDonald’s have been engaged in one of the most competitive corporate rivalries in fast food history. In the 1980s, the two actually went to court over accusations about Burger King's sourcing and preparation of meats. In 2016, a BK restaurant in Queens, New York, was draped in sheets and made to look like the ghost of McDonald’s.

The sniping continues, but this time McDonald’s isn’t really involved. According to The Hollywood Reporter and coming our way via Eater, the Russian branch of Burger King has filed a complaint with the country’s Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) over the recent horror blockbuster It. The reason? They claim the movie’s evil clown, Pennywise, is so reminiscent of Ronald McDonald that the release will constitute an unfair advertising opportunity for their competitor.

While this sounds like either a prank or publicity stunt hatched by Burger King’s marketing arm, the FAS confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that the burger chain did indeed request the movie be banned. That doesn’t mean it’s not a marketing ploy—there must be economic advantages to comparing a chief competitor’s mascot to a child-murdering clown—but it does offer some substance to the claim. The FAS told the outlet that it “can’t be concerned” with a fictional character in a movie that has nothing to do with hamburgers, but hasn’t made any final decision.

Owing to the recent scary-clown hysteria, McDonald’s has actually dialed down Ronald’s appearances in public over the past two years, which does raise suspicion over what he’s been doing with his downtime. It: Chapter Two is scheduled to infuriate Burger King even more when it’s released in 2019.

[h/t Eater]  

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