When Stars Bank on Advertising Only

Despite numerous box office bombs and once-in-a-blue-moon TV soap appearances, some actors and actresses enjoy wild successes as commercial models, firmly establishing an aura of mystery even among celebrities. In Japan, even popular celebrities rarely appear in more commercials than dramas, while stars in U.S. rarely shoot commercials except for luxury goods. But in Korea, some celebrities star in commercials at least 10 times more than in dramas or movies.

◆ Commercials-only Stars

For the actress Kim Tae-hee, who returns to the screen for the first time in four years this September, her new drama role is a chance to shed her prolonged image as a TV spot star. She appeared in 26 commercials since 2005, an average of 5.2 per year. During the same period, she starred in only two films, "The Restless," and "Venus and Mars." Actors and actresses such as Jang Dong-gun, Jeon Ji-hyun, Han Ga-in, Han Ye-seul, or Shin Min-a also appeared more in commercials than in movies.

What makes this possible is their so-called marketing power. In a survey of the most popular actor and actress in Korea in 2009 by market researcher Leespiar in March, Jang Dong-gun and Kim Tae-hee took first place -- a truly surprising result given that neither appeared in any movies or dramas since 2007. What were the standards measuring popularity? Leespiar says it simply asked respondents who might be considered popular and to list their personal preferences. That suggests many people actually voted for them because of their frequent appearance on TV, regardless of the context. Although great popularity may lead to appearances in commercials, this can also work the other way and make them more popular.

From left, Jeon Ji-hyun, Kim Tae-hee, and Han Ye-seul From left, Jeon Ji-hyun, Kim Tae-hee, and Han Ye-seul

◆ Income

Fees of hundreds of million won are also a phenomenon unique to Korea. In the U.S., only professional models appear in commercials, which actors tend to avoid so as not to look like has-beens. This shows that acting alone can generate enough wealth in the U.S., whereas it rarely does in Korea. The tendency to cast top stars for commercials is also absent in Japan. "Japanese agencies don't invest too much in fees because the products take precedence over celebrities in commercials," says Jung Bo-hyun, an executive in a domestic ad agency. "Celebrities themselves also choose to appear constantly in a single commercial rather than to star in many for higher pay." By contrast, a handful of actors and actresses dominate the film industry in Korea. "In a situation like this, many celebrities focus more on commercials than actual acting," says Kim won-young, a copywriter.

◆ Popularity and Risks

The benefits of such strategies are dubious. According to data released by the researcher Brand 38, Kim Tae-hee's commercial influence dropped from first place in early 2008 to fifth this year, Jeon Ji-hyun's from third to sixth, and Zo In-sung's from sixth to 11th place. The center explains that constant exposure to repeated images rapidly dulls the receptiveness of the public.

"Comparing popularity and the lack of it every year, the data show that celebrities who appear only in commercials tend to grow unpopular," says the director of Brand 38. "While celebrities who established a mysterious image for themselves were at the top of the list for commercials up until three years ago, now celebrities who constantly honed their talents are beginning to dominate the advertising market."

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 05, 2009 08:27 KST