MITI. Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. They called the shots in Japan when it came to manufacturing and international trade. Truth be told, MITI was happy when the U.S. imposed import quotas on how many Japanese cars could be imported here. Once they had a finite quota number, they were able to parcel out allocations to the Japanese car manufacturers based on “what was hot.” Datsun was selling well, especially with the Z car. Give them a bigger piece of the pie. Mazda was still reeling from their reliance on rotary engines, so they got a smaller piece, until they could prove otherwise to MITI. The Japanese imports fought desperately for market share. They were more willing to try unconventional media ideas than Detroit. One of these ideas, for Mazda, was to venture into the shadowy world of “skin magazines.” You have to remember, this was still the 70s, still no universal internet access to titillation. Playboy, still considered taboo by many, and Penthouse, considered taboo by almost everybody, had just about given up getting any automotive advertising. But then, sometimes the forbidden fruit is the sweetest. The decision was made that Mazda was going to advertise in both, as well as Oui, a Playboy spinoff. The client was quite adamant that “it made sense from a demographic point of view.” Well, yes, men in droves did read these magazines.
We inked the deal. The magazines were so excited that they immediately asked us to provide them with a list of Mazda executives who should be put on the magazine “comp” list. Mazda came back to us with a list of about 20 people. Of course, we couldn’t convince the magazines that there were 20 people at Mazda who had input on media decisions. The list was cut to 10. We received frequent phone calls asking us when the comp copies would start arriving. I should point out that Mazda was not alone in this quest. Many of the Japanese car companies started advertising in this category. Back then, Playboy was all about “the girl next door.” Even though the Playmates were anything but. Penthouse went for the “girl you’d pick up at a strip club and who might beat you up.” This was pretty accurate. There was a smattering of angry letters from religious organizations and irate parents in Texas. In general, however, Mazda weathered the tide. The comps started arriving, and all was right with Mazda. I did, however, notice a strange phenomenon. After several months, I still had not seen one of the magazines in any of the Mazda offices. Were they taking them home? Probably not.
In my post of 10/31/13, I discuss the concepts of tatemae and honne. I was soon to discover the honne of advertising in Playboy and Penthouse. Until recently, Japanese censors were pretty strict about what could and couldn’t be shown of the human body. Japanese-language editions of Playboy and Penthouse had the “naughty bits” blacked out. International mail was checked lest someone send an American edition back home. If discovered, the censors dutifully, and with great care, affixed stickers over the offending parts. Any attempt to remove the sticker would tear the page. Every piece of mail that came into the country had to go through a customs check. I previously mentioned the all-powerful MITI. They convinced the Japanese government that anything that slowed down international trade was bad for the country. That included business mail from the United States. I should also note that business was conducted differently in Japan. It was an expense account economy.
And, public officials were often given small presents to help them make decisions. I asked one of my Mazda clients about the vanishing magazines. He and I had advanced to a honne level of conversation. He told me. “Tom,” he explained, “we can’t get American versions of Playboy and Penthouse in Japan. Censors find them in customs and place stickers on them. However, correspondence from the U.S. branches of Japanese companies is allowed to be sent in diplomatic pouches. This speeds their delivery. Every month, we take all 10 copies of each magazine and send them in the diplomatic pouch. They are very valuable in Japan.” I knew where this was going. “So,” I asked, “they become gifts for Mazda executives to give to the folks at MITI?” He nodded. I decided to call my friend, the rep from Psychology Today. “Joe,” I said, “if you want to get on the Mazda media schedule, next month’s issue has to have a foldout of Miss Nude Schizoaffective Disorder.”
But all did not stay peaceful in Licentiousland. The Penthouse rep contacted us about putting on a dinner for us and key Mazda clients. She hoped to seal the deal by telling us that two Penthouse Pets would be there. Everyone RSVP’d “Yes.” All of Mazda’s top management would attend. The dinner was held in a private room at a very nice LA restaurant. Cocktails flowed freely as we waited for our host and the “guests of honor” to arrive. Her assistant had put out copies of the magazines in which the ladies appeared. I don’t know how I would have reacted if, while eating dinner, the person next to me was going through a magazine full of pictures of me in my birthday suit. The two Pets were polar opposites in looks, demeanor, and intelligence. Hildegard Grossebruste was from Hamburg, Germany. Brunette, with flawless English. Bambi Fay Culpepper was from Kermit, Texas. Blonde, with a hardscrabble look to her, she didn’t have flawless English. Hildegard was seated next to me at the long dinner table. Bambi Fay was across from me. Hildegard had married a GI to get in to the U.S. He left her and their daughter a few months after getting here. She admitted that she wasn’t very proud of her magazine layout, but she needed the $10,000 that it paid. She wanted to “become a movie star” but was worried that her appearance in Penthouse would ruin her chances. I said, “Hey, it didn’t stop Vanessa Williams.”
Bambi Fay was a different story. I asked her whether Kermit was in West Texas. She said yes. I asked her if it was near Midland-Odessa. She said, “I think so. On Saturday nights the boys put a couple of us girls in the back of a pickup truck and drive to Midland to party. It takes about half an hour, so I guess it’s nearby.” It soon became apparent that the only reason Bambi was here was for the opportunity to down vast amounts of Jack and Coke. Soon, to use a Texas term, she proceeded to get snot slinging drunk. She very loudly complained that she would rather be at the Whiskey a Go-Go, or The Troubadour, rather than at “a dinner with a bunch of foreigners.” Then she got sloppy, knocking over drinks. When our host admonished her, Bambi let fly with enough profanity to peel the paint off of an oil rig. She jumped to her feet and said, “You all can go frag (she didn’t actually say frag) yourselves. I’m out of here. Half you guys can’t even speak English good.” Hildegard jumped to her feet. “Bambi,” she said, “you are being very rude. You wouldn’t be in LA at a fabulous restaurant if it wasn’t for these nice gentlemen. Behave yourself and sit down!” Bambi wasn’t having any of this. She came around the table and took a swing at Hildie. She missed and went flying into the dessert tray. She stood up, wiped the tiramisu off of her face, and stormed out. This pretty much ended the dinner. The Penthouse rep was horrified. On the verge of tears, she and Hildegard bade farewell to the Mazda clients…who had seen and heard quite enough. Penthouse was soon cut from the media schedule.
The next morning, Hildegarde showed up at the agency. One of our creative guys at the dinner said that he’d like to talk to her about putting her in TV commercials.
Next: We Go To The Mattresses