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In 1981 Japanese car maker Isuzu Motors entered the U.S. market.
If you asked Americans to name a Japanese car maker Isuzu wasn’t exactly top-of-mind.
This was a classic marketing problem. Isuzu wanted to compete with Toyota. But their ad budget was one-tenth of Toyota's ad budget.
Even so Isuzu's sales showed healthy growth. In 1981 Isuzu sold 28,000 vehicles in America, representing 0.26% market share. By 1985 their market share was 0.68%, and Isuzu sold 105,000 cars in America that year.
The auto industry is a brutal, competitive market. Isuzu knew that to survive they had to do something distinctive. To get noticed and stay top of mind.
So Isuzu hires ad agency Della Femina, Travisano & Partners.
In 1986, Joe Isuzu was born. Joe Isuzu was a fictional spokesman who starred in a series of Isuzu car and truck ads from 1986 to 1990. Played by actor David Leisure, Joe Isuzu was a sneaky, snake oil car salesperson.
Joe was a big liar who made exaggerated claims about his Isuzu's cars.
On TV commercials he said things like, "It's top speed is 300 miles per hour", "Isuzu dealers have millions in stock, so they're selling them for $9" or "It can carry a symphony orchestra".
But the genius part of the ads were the subtitles. Whenever Joe lied, subtitles showed up correcting his lies with humorous copy, “He’s lying.” And also pushing Isuzu's best features.
America fell so in love with Joe Isuzu that Isuzu ads went straight to the top-ten spots in consumer recall in 1989.
Perhaps there's a lesson here for brands in 2020. We’re all just so used to seeing brands lie and brag they're "the best" that ANYTHING a little bit more honest and tongue-in-cheek will stand out.
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