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Japan, Food, and Gender, Part 5: Edible Idols

Posted by Shaun

In this last installment of the "Japan, Food, and Gender" series, we're going to look at something a little different. That is, the use of women to sell food, with a focus on the Japanese pop band AKB48.

If you live in Japan, and especially Tokyo, it's impossible to go through daily life without hearing something about AKB48, the forty-eight-(and-counting)-member pop idol group that performs daily for its (largely male) otaku fanbase in Akihabara. The AKB girls' smiling faces appear all over billboards and the advertisements in trains, and they appear in every sort of TV programming, from televised concerts to comedy and variety to even serious drama (Atsuko Maeda has a main role in the currently-airing  最高の人生の終わり方 Saikou no Jinsei no Owarikata and her name is always followed in the credits by "AKB48"). I also learned when I visited the grocery store near my host family's house to research for this blog series that they appear on a surprising array of advertisements for food and beverages.

The use of women in food advertisements is nothing new. "Sexy Food Advertisements - Hot Women in Food Ads" has examples starting from the 1800s, and Sociological Images has a large collection of ads either posing food like women or women like food.

Margarita Jankauskait writes in "Food, Gender, and Representation":

"The feminine body, irksomely related by means of mass media to food products, becomes a product itself. A woman is ‘consumed’ like food; she is seduced by food (as a man is seduced by pornographic images). In advertisements her image is closely connected with gourmet experiences that surpass sexual experiences..."(1-2).
Although it's tame compared to the Hardees and Burger King ads on the sites linked above, it's getting hard not to look askance at AKB48's ad for the Hotto Motto boxed lunch chain's katsu-don, right? Cute girls enthusiastically gobbling down food that we learned in Part 2 was coded as masculine. I could be wrong, but I think there might be something sexual going on here.

It's not totally related to this blog entry, but if you're in the mood to feel some righteous anger, you can watch the making-of video, おいしい顔のヒミツOishii Kao no Himitsu "The Secret to a 'Delicious' Face" on Hotto Motto's Youtube account. Just like the commercial, there's a version for each of the three AKB girls. Basically, the advertisers made each girl not eat anything for 24 hours and then, in her weakened state, led her to a room where they could film her eating Hotto Motto katsu-don. Then they posted the videos on YouTube as a fan extra. I find this pretty horrifying, and I don't think it's just because I'm hungry right now.

According to Brian Ashcraft's Schoolgirl Confidential*, part of AKB48's appeal lies in the group's vast array of members. Each girl's personality is different, and so are her hobbies, so fans can find a girl who shares their interests (33-34). "It's an idol smorgasbord where fans can find at least one idol to his or her taste," says Ashcraft (34). Don't miss that word "smorgasbord." An article at AdvertisingAge.com also uses the language of food to describe the band, with the headline "AKB48 Takes Equal Parts Choir, Slumber Party and Beauty Pageant, Mixes Well."

It's not just Hotto Motto katsu-don that AKB48 promotes.  The holiday season and 7-11 brought us AKB48 Christmas cake, and the impending Valentines Day brings us AKB48 in commercials for Meiji chocolate bars. A quick Google search introduced me to a wall-sized ad for Wonda Morning Shot coffee with AKB48 as cheerleaders, AKB48 instant ramen, and AKB48 "Happy Pie."

Meiji chocolate display featuring AKB48
AKB48 is on this vending machine at my train station twice: in the back with the white cat ears...
...And here in the Wonda coffee ad on the side.
Several of the AKB48-sponsored food products come with a collectable. At the grocery store near my house, I saw bottles of vegetable juice that each came with a tiny figurine of one of the girls, and at conveniences stores you can buy Wonda-brand coffee that comes with a charm with an AKB star's face on it (here's a blog post and photo by someone who's bought one). With both of these products, you can see which AKB48 collectable you're getting before you buy. It's not random. Fans can choose from any of the bottles or cans on the shelf and buy only those that come with a collectable of their favorite star.
Tiny AKB48 dolls sold with Kagome Fruity Tomato juice

So what's with this incredibly persistent association between AKB48 and food?
The nature of the band itself makes its members particularly well-suited to being "consumed" in food advertisements. AKB48 is successful for two reasons: 1) The band members are accessible. What's more accessible than a grocery store, and what's more comfortably incorporated into a fan's daily life than food? 2) The band members span a wide variety of interests and personalities, to satisfy any appetite, like a buffet. In small groups, like in the Wonda and Meiji ads, AKB48's image can appear over and over again in ads without getting boring, because the band's managers can always pick new faces to highlight, like a restaurant with seasonal menus. And fans can consume AKB48 in bite-sized morsels when the girls appear individually, whether it's in multiple versions of a TV commercial or in collectables attached to AKB48-sponsored food products.

AKB48 represents the pinnacle of gender in food marketing. It combines food advertising with an entertainment concept that allows fans to consume their favorite young stars either as a cutely singing set or a la carte by personality, and the end result is a group of edible idols, smiling their way into fans' hearts, minds, and stomachs three meals a day.

Print Works Cited
Ashcraft, Brian. Schoolgirl Confidential. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2010.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting Shaun!

  2. Anonymous says:

    thanks for posting.

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