Imagine an authority figure who makes up facts, denies the truth, contradicts himself and never apologizes, but by dint of his magnetic power on TV is wildly popular.
Welcome to the world of Joe Isuzu, advertising's first official liar. Created by Della Femina, Travisano & Partners in 1986 as a slimy car salesman for the Japanese brand, Joe—actor David Leisure—offered a refreshing turn in an industry known for elasticizing the truth.
With his fake smile and oleaginous demeanor, Joe embodied the caricature of a shady salesman stinking up the car lot—and then upped the ante. "It has more seats than the Astrodome," he gleefully guaranteed in one spot for the Isuzu Trooper II. "So inexpensive, you can buy one with your spare change," he said in another.
But the genius (and legal work) was in the self-correcting device: subtitles below the whoppers. Take the Astrodome claim: "Almost. It Seats Five." Below the spare change line: "If you have $6,189 in quarters." Never before in advertising were text and subtext presented so dazzlingly.
By the second year of the campaign, the lies became more visual. In one spot (pictured here), Joe appeared to outrun a speeding bullet.
But after a reported 18 percent spike in Isuzu sales during the campaign's first year, sales started leveling off and then fading, according to an Ad Age report at the time. Consumers seemed to love the ads more than the actual sheet metal. Isuzu changed agencies and campaigns, but continued to struggle. By 2009, it stopped selling vehicles in the U.S.
Joe, who was so transparent in his lies, hit an ethical nerve. He became a metaphor not only for selling products, but for politics. That's a lot of power to roll into a single sleazeball ad character.
Still, given our currently reality, old Joe was minor league.