The Greatest Television Commercial Ever Made

Hear me now and believe me later, when I tell you that what you’re about to witness is the simply the greatest commercial advertisement in the history of television. Around the world:

No, seriously. Imagine it’s the early 1970s, and this ad appears on Japanese television. If you don’t speak much English, and see Charles Bronson at a swank nightclub, then racing through town in his huge Cadillac Coupe de Ville, and finally, stopping off at his swinging pad to light a pipe and douse himself in…Mandom!…you’d probably think that…

Wait, who am I kidding? This had to look as camp to early ‘70s viewers in Japan as it does to our 21st century American eyes. I can only imagine that the director did several different takes of Bronson with varying expressions and gestures for each shot, and cut together nothing but the wildest shots of Bronson he had, sort of a miniature version of what Stanley Kubrick did to George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove. Fortunately for all of us, at no point did General Turgidson fling his shirt into the air and pirouette around the War Room.

If you’ve ever seen Sofia Coppola’s brilliant 2003 film Lost in Translation, you can work out the whole backstory for why this ad was made. Bronson was a huge star in Europe and presumably Japan as well, but hadn’t quite yet made it to superstardom in Hollywood, a plateau that would only reach at age 50 when he starred in 1974’s epochal film Death Wish. (Ironically, he was, in one sense, badly miscast – Brian Garfield, the writer of the novel wanted Jack Lemmon in the lead role. Lemmon would have been infinitely more believable as a commercial architect at the start of the movie. And audiences would have been much more shocked at Hollywood’s quintessential milquetoast liberal blasting away at New York muggers at the low point of the city’s existence than they were when the uber-macho Bronson laid waste to the city’s scum.) For Bronson, like Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation, shooting an ad while in Japan was an easy paycheck, along with plenty of ego-boosting glad-handing from the local ad agency, eager to work with an American star. And the comfort of knowing that no one back home was going to see the finished ad, no matter how embarrassing it was.

Until YouTube came along.

What’s also fun about this ad in retrospect is that it combines multiple elements that political correctness have all but bulldozed over: pipe smoking, the heroic cowboy figure (whom Bronson briefly transforms into with just a splash of Mandom) and Bronson himself. While Death Wish made him a superstar, it also typecast him into that role almost entirely. As Bronson was quoted at the Internet Movie Database, “Someday I’d like a part where I can lean my elbow against a mantelpiece and have a cocktail.” This ad was probably as close as he got during the last 30 years or so of his career. (And even then, gunplay was involved.)

Oh, and pay no attention to that the fact that no woman seems to be sharing Bronson’s swinging pad, even after he bathes in the World’s Most Ultimate Aftershave. Hopefully she arrived just after the commercial fades out, or whoever Japan’s equivalent of Fredric Wertham was at the time would have pondered endlessly the subtext of the ad. Perhaps even more so than future generations will. Which is a reminder that getting lost in translation isn’t always just a cross-cultural communication breakdown, but can be temporal as well.

(H/T: Jim Treacher.)