Remembering Joe Isuzu: A Truly Bizarre Character Invented To Sell Cars With Obvious Lies
"Its top speed is 300 miles per hour ... they're selling them for $9."
Although every auto manufacturer has attempted to use comedy to sell cars, Isuzu might be the witty car commercial O.G. Its ‘Joe Isuzu’ gag is full of chuckle-inducing bits that first spanned from 1986 to 1990 and later experienced a periodic reprisal between 1999 and 2001.
The concept is straightforward: A narcissistic, pathological liar of a pitchman, played by actor David Leisure, says some overblown lies about various Isuzu vehicles of the era, while subtitles play the straight man and clarify his remarks. Apparently, the advertising and automotive sales businesses didn’t take too kindly to the satire back in the day, which speaks to how good the writing was.
One of my favorite lines: “And so inexpensive, you can buy one with your spare change,” while the subtitles state, “If you have $6,189 in quarters.”
That initial run was impressive because it can be awfully hard to use the same bit over and over for so long. Just look at the peaks and valleys of Andrew Dice Clay’s career.
Furthermore, way back in December of 1986, The Washington Post printed an opinion column that shed some light on why the ads tested and did so well. They were perfectly matched with society’s emotions and sentiments of the era.
“Launched late last summer, the Isuzu campaign has already hit Video Storyboard Tests’ list of top 10 commercials for the third quarter of 1986.” Barbara Lippert wrote. “That’s quite unusual, given the fact that this ranking, the result of polls in shopping malls across the country, usually reflects naming such household favorites as Pepsi and Jell-O.”
“At Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, the agency that created the campaign, chairman Jerry Della Femina said, ‘Young people who sat by and watched Reagan get reelected are as cynical as hell. They’ve been lied to before. They’re amused by the shocking simple truth of the liar commercials.’”
It’s great to see some factory-fresh Isuzus front and center, too, as it seems like a lot of the company’s lineup has been generally forgotten. I’d love to have a late-‘80s Trooper as a fun off-roader someday. I also bet the Lotus-tuned JT22-generation Impulse XS was immense fun back in the day with its revvy 1.6-liter engine.
Leisure was perfect for Joe Isuzu’s big grin and smart-ass delivery. Besides having what sounds like a hacky stage name (seriously though, he was born David Russell Leisure), he’s starred in a bunch of roles on TV and in film throughout the past 40 years. He even played the weird principal in 10 Things I Hate About You.
So sit back and enjoy some refreshingly funny car ads, and pay attention to how the writing changed over time to keep the bit fresh. Some segments certainly would not fly in today’s broadcasting, but they’re largely harmless. And if you’re like me, follow it up with some cheap Trooper perusing on Craigslist. They seem like they might be overlooked 4X4 gems. Just don’t buy anything on an Impulse.
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