Encouraged by cheaper talent-fees for foreign stars are a fraction of the cost of their Korean counterparts-and anxious to avoid over-use of local celebrities, South Korean marketers are signing U.S. entertainers from Sylvester Stallone to Sharon Stone at a record pace.
Foreign stars come cheaper, according to local advertising executives, because the comparatively small pool of important Korean stars are in great demand and therefore command outrageously high salaries.
But the rule relaxation bringing foreign entertainment luminaries to the market might still produce a backlash from watchdog and civic groups claiming these stars threaten Korean culture.
The Information Ministry, the government office overseeing media and advertising, lifted its 5-year-old provision prohibiting foreign models from starring in local TV spots last summer. The original ban came because of public outcry that the influx of foreign stars was "Americanizing" Koreans.
But within the last year, the government has been rethinking policies such as the model rule in an effort to open the market and accommodate foreign trade.
Before the ban was enacted, foreign stars could earn only $5,000 for ad appearances. But under the new regulations, there is no salary limit.
The reaction from the ad industry was immediate. Cosmetics marketer Lucky Ltd. quickly signed Shannen Doherty, star of U.S. TV show "Beverly Hills, 90210" to pitch its Ez Up cosmetic line in a campaign created by L.G. Ad that began running two months after the restrictions were lifted.
In the spot, Ms. Doherty does little but sit and read a book, saying only two words, "Ez Up," at the commercial's conclusion. Nevertheless, the use of Ms. Doherty is considered a coup because her TV series is a ratings-buster in South Korea.
Another celebrity signed up with a personal products company is Brooke Shields, hired by Han Mi Pharm and its agency Cheil Communications, for a reputed $140,000.
It's not only U.S. stars that are in demand. Haitai Confectionery snapped up Taiwanese actor Lim Ji-Ryung for a TV campaign for its Cafeate chocolate bar. Korad created the commercial, which began running in October. In the spot, the girlfriend of Mr. Lim, who recently experienced a very public breakup with him, rips down a poster advertising his tour. Later in the spot, he appears and hands her a Cafeate. Then they embrace to his music. His voice-over: "It's rich Cafeate."
Local ad agency executives say marketers are currently haggling with even more big movie stars, including Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in addition to Ms. Stone and Mr. Stallone.
"The biggest merit of casting foreigners is that it costs less than local stars," said Chou Eun-Ho, a Lucky spokesman. Mr. Lim, for example, was paid $120,000 for his spot and Ms. Doherty $250,000, considerably less than local talent such as cinema siren Kang Su-Yon, who netted $500,000 for an appearance in a spot for Oriental Brewery's OB Ice Beer last year.
The second payoff is that foreign stars manage to break through the clutter of jaded South Korean audiences accustomed to seeing Korean celebrity after celebrity in ads.
"Presently, it is very common in TV commercials for the model who plugged shoes to immediately reappear promoting garments and then to show up in a food commercial," said Mr. Chou. "Consumers have become fed up with the same faces."
Still, a backlash could again be brewing. "These commercials using foreign celebrities tend to encourage local consumers, especially youths, to adore foreign culture and to favor things foreign," said Cho Kwang-hwl, manager of the Korean Broadcasting Commission, a government body that reviews all South Korean commercials.
Whether another public protest will ensue is anyone's guess. But whatever the outcome, there's little doubt that non-Korean stars are effective. A 1989 spot aired just before the law passed featuring Hong Kong movie star Chang Kook-Yung for Lotte Beverage's Milkiss soft drink worked so well that sales tripled within a year of the commercial's debut.