Lost in Translation is a 2003 American film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and directed by Sofia Coppola. The film centers on a unique relationship between aging movie star Bob Harris and college graduate Charlotte. The story is set in Tokyo, where Bob is shooting a Suntory whisky advertisment, while Charlotte is with her husband, who is on assignment in Japan.

Suntory billboard from the movie Lost in Translation

I won’t go into much detail about the plot – if you haven’t seen the movie, you must do it ASAP, because it’s one of the best movies of the decade. Let’s analyze the product placement part of the movie.

So, Bob Harris arrived in Tokyo to film a Suntory whisky advertisement. Suntory is one of the oldest Japanese companies in the distribution of alcoholic beverages. The company produces beer, rum, whisky (the most famous is Yamazaki) and liqueurs. One of their whiskies (Suntory Hibiki 21) was a winner of the 2010 World Whiskies Award.

Suntory was one of the first Asian companies to employ celebrities and actors to market their product. In their ads Suntory used Sean Connery, Keanu Reeves, Tommy Lee Jones … In the late 1970s, Akira Kurosawa directed a famous series of commercials featuring American celebrities – one of them was Sofia Coppola’s father Francis Ford Coppola. And that was partially the inspiration for having Bob Harris do a Suntory whisky commercial.

Bob was literally lost in translation while shooting the Suntory ad. His interpreter translated just a small part of the director’s advices. Sofia Coppola intentionally made the dialogue in Japanese without subtitles, so that both Bob and movie-goers would be puzzled.

Despite the lack of credible information about paid/unpaid placement and the details behind the deal (if there was a deal, of course), it’s still one of the most memorable use of movies to promote a certain whisky brand.

“It was a great boost for us,” said Masaki Morimoto, general manager for Suntory’s premium-spirits marketing department. “I admit, I felt like there was a slight sense of insult to Japanese, but it’s OK. Our company got famous internationally.”

If that was their goal, they certainly succeeded. The movie’s production budget was just 4 million USD and it grossed 119 million USD worldwide. It also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and three Golden Globes.