For several years I worked for the J.Walter Thompson Advertising Company in Tokyo, Japan. It was in the eighties and at the time I was one of only four gaigin, or foreigners, in the office, working with mostly Japanese natives in the creative department. Every day was an adventure and I loved, for the first time in my life, feeling TALL. I did not love the smoke-hazed atmosphere or my hour long commute in sardine-like, sometimes unairconditioned subway cars. But the pay was great (had to love that yen), the people fascinating and fun, and the work totally intriguing.
My primary account was SHISEIDO, the enormous Japanese pharmaceutical/cosmetic company headquartered in Tokyo. I wrote copy for western countries and participated in focus groups where I often had to convince my Japanese female boss that saying a night cream “Brings Harmony and Peace While Beautiful Woman Sleeps” would not cut it in my country or many others. Harmony is a key word in Japan and I have seen it used to describe everything from whiskey to underwear to packaged fish to cosmetics (but not if I could help it).
One of my favorite products was a light, not too sweet sports drink called “Calpiss” which, in Japanese is pronounced “Cow Piss”. You want some Cow Piss?” A wacky Creative Director called Mamada San offered me one day. The vending machine also offered other similar drinks, one called “Pocari Sweat” and another “EREKTUS”.
I opted for water—a DIET WATER called just this. Under the name read “All the Flavor of regular water—and half the calories”. What the heck?
I will never forget the day a Japanese copywriter stopped by my desk to discuss a hair care product he was promoting. The tall, red can contained a spray to be used on wet hair before blow drying, to add body and shine. “Nan-San” he addressed me, “Do you think we can call product “BLOW ME”? It’s good—no? Even though he pronounced it “BRO ME” as most of his people cannot pronounce the letter “L”, I insisted a better name existed for his new spray.
I spent hours of fun reading product labels in grocery and drug stores, marveling at some of the names. There were lollipop packages labeled “THE CANDY THAT MAKES YOU HORNY”. It tastes like flavored condoms. And “VITAMINS FOR GAMERS”. Can’t concentrate on your Wii? Pop a pill! Another plant-based product promised to “tone a woman’s breasts as well as make them grow.” This was named B2>UP and seemed to sell well as Japanese women in general are rather flat-chested. They also bought boxes of a tape called “CIRCLE EYES” which was intended to make their slanted eyes more round, thus western. “COCK” is/was a sauce for shrimp, “BARF” is a laundry detergent, and “MY FANNIE” is a quilted toilet paper.
This is not to say questionable labels never show up outside of Japan or even Asia. In Finland one can purchase a super large bag of potato chips called “MEGAPUSSI!” and/or a yummy bread with the label, “JUSSIPUSSI”. In Australia they market an ice cream named “GOLDEN GAYTIME”and marketers balked when a homosexual group suggested changing the name.
The winner, I must say, of my favorite crazy product is this “GIRLFRIEND LAP PILLOW”— for sale in Japan…
I am about to snap. Some wreck less writer calling herself Myra recently claimed in an in-flight magazine article that the likes of the Green Giant or the Pillsbury Dough Boy no longer cut it in today’s media environment.
“The age of the cartoon icon is arguably over”, she hesitatingly claims. The key word being arguably, I might add. Misinformed Myra’s thinking is that today’s calculating consumers want to feel free to socially interact with a product’s promoter by tweeting, e- mailing, texting and or friending him or her on- line. “How silly”, I am thinking as I write, knowing what goes on between the lines.
Now I ask you—is it any different for Ned in Nebraska to e-mail a Valentine to Flo,the always happy to help Progressive Insurance agent, telling her she is adorable, than I blogging about my serious crush on Mr. Clean and his magic erasers, sprays, and muscular physique?
How dare this audacious author insult the Green Giant when his garden variety of veggies out-sells other brands, even Bird’s Eye, buy a long stretch. At the risk of sounding corny, I’d hungrily string along my jolly good friend forever while All State’s Mr. Mayhem and Dos Equis Beer’s “most interesting man in the world” leave me cold. And don’t think I am not aware that these slick characters are no more than two-bit actors posing as commercial stars. I happen to know Mayhem’s real name is Dean Winters and in real life he was Trouble with a capital T as a kid. And that beer buster is nothing more than another pretty face.
Little Debbie, usually found in the baked -goods aisle, is younger, sweeter, and more reserved than Flo, while Charlie the Tuna never ages and is in fact is far more famous AND interesting than The Dos Equis dude. Many people have never even heard of the beer much less “the most interesting man in the world”. Myself, I find him a total boar.
By the way, have you tried Mr. Clean’s latest sensation–a larger Magic Eraser for the bathroom? It sinks deep into dirt, scum and mold, while leaving your tub sparkling—just like my precious Mr. C’s piercing blue eyes…