Thursday, May 28, 2009

MR.BRAIN 脳トレパン

The inspirations of co-branding can take the consumer down strange and winding roads. One of the more absurd, and thus ultimately clever ideas has come from the folks who inspired the title of this blog, the Yamazaki Baking Company.

The article in question is the Mr. Brain Nou Torepan (MR.BRAIN 脳トレパン). As far as I can tell, there's a clever bit of punstery going on with the name. In my own misreading it looks like MR. BRAIN brain trepan, or Mr. Brain's brain core (the meaning of trepan). But of course, pan means bread, so trepan and pan become a bit conflated and one's left stumped and mystified as to what's really going on here.*

The bun actually looks a little like the remains of a cranial trepanning. A disc of bread with a bumpy brain-like texture on the top. As if you got a decent cross section of skull material with a soupçon of cortex attached. Inside a a layer of caramel chocolate cream topped and another of whipped cream. And beyond that is the addition of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a popular fad chemical that supposed to be good for memory retention and a counter for alzheimer's disease. All well and good. But why?

The why is the co-branding with a new TV show, MR. BRAIN. Simultaneously with the release of the bun last month was the premiere of the new TV show, in which TV superstar and pop group SMAP member, Takuya Kimura, plays a gigolo who suffers a brain injury and becomes a crime-solving sleuth. Both the TV program and the junk food seem a little half-baked in concept, but in the first couple weeks of being on air, MR. BRAIN got upwards of 25% viewership. Smarter than I thought!

There are no records of the popularity of the baked good - it's a rather cloying and heavy puck of dough and filler - but I imagine after buying one for a sample, one will be a little smarter the next time walking down the grocery store aisle and will reach for something else instead.

* It has been brought to my attention by Rachel (see comment below - Thanks!), that yes, I really did misread the meaning of name of this product. It actually means "Mr. Brain brain training bread." However, I do like to think that some serious double-entendre was in action while they were deciding what to call the damn thing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

エルビー ナタデココホワイト

In 1993, with a push toward the slimming effect (no calories) and a specious claim for cancer curing properties, nata de coco, a jellied food product produced by the bacterial fermentation of coconut water and carrageenan (click here to find out how it's made), became an overnight fad in the Japanese market.  Junk food producers fell all over themselves making drinks, desserts and what-have-you for a huge market. 

This boom created a bump in the relatively small and independent producers market in the Philippines, where nata de coco originates. The demand from Filipino producers was too much to meet in 1993. But money was made. Production was capitalized for the ever increasing sales. It was boom times for poor coconut farmer and the smart entrepreneur. By 1994, the bottom fell out of the market. The fickle Japanese fad consumer had already moved on to something new. The poor Filipino farmer returned to being poor.

Years later, memories of the big nato de coco times linger in a handful of seasonal products that hit the shelves. This May, エルビー ナタデココホワイト (LB Nato de Coco White) can be found at the local Family Mart. It's an unremarkable cooler that has a yogurt-y Calpissy milky quality with little floaters of nato de coco. Oh and there's aloe in it too. 

Nato de coco - what can we call it? a neotraditional food product - itself seems to be a bit of overkill on what plain old coconut meat can do. But I would imagine, in the Philippines, its production is probably built around preservation. I'm sure nato de coco lasts a bit longer in the larder than a freshly opened coconut.

Still the cynicism of marketing, in this case, the fading memory of a so-called health product over and over again. - adding aloe, adding yogurt, adding whatever the fad of the day is into the same old same old - is endless and yet another disposable product appears and will disappear from the shelves.  It's the modern cycle of the seasons.

Monday, May 18, 2009

カフェインスナック キャラメルマキアート味

In general, even when reaching for a novel snack food, the primary function of eating plays an important role. We eat for nutrition. Corporate food does its best to destroy and then re-add nutritive value to its products. Ultimately though, even with the most frivolous of junk food concoctions, we grab it because we're hungry. What drives one, generally to choose one chip over another, is that we know or think we might enjoy the taste of one over the other.

The concept of food as delivery system has been on corporate and "scientific" minds for several decades now. The affront of all sports drinks (delivering antioxidants, electrolytes and things you didn't know - guess what? you didn't - need), cigarettes and other products that serve as delivery systems of nicotine and beverages that deliver caffeine (the massive misstep of Jolt Cola comes to mind).  Products (I dare not call them foods) that make no pretense of delivering even a hint of nutrition, let alone a pleasurable taste sensation keep rearing their ugly heads in the aisles and refrigerator cases of the konbini.

As a rule of thumb, I usually stay away from these products, that offer neither comfort, nutrition, nor satisfaction. However, every once and a while something so horribly conceived, so against the idea that humans learn from mistakes and there is something real called progress, crawls onto the shelf (the bottom, this time) and the world must be reminded, once again, that the forces of evil are still working day and night to make this world a lesser place.

The snack in question is the カフェインスナック キャラメルマキアート味 (Caffeine Snack Caramel Machiato Flavor). Deer pellet sized corn puffs, lighter than air (just so one has no illusion that there's anything substantial about these), with a light dusting of mildly acrid coffee powder make for a taste sensation that is truly awful. The snack boasts about 150kg of caffeine per pop. In English on the package it says " Vitalize your day with Caffeine Snack. Caffeine increases your performance, concentration and alertness." A perfect snack for a perfect worktron. More caffeine!  More output! There is N-O-T-H-I-N-G even remotely redeemable about this snack. These hateful things also come in macha latte flavor.  The corporate giant responsible for this is Frito Lay Japan. Nuff said? Frito Lay has managed to demean potato chips, tortilla chips and nearly everything else it has laid its filthy hands on. Basta ya!  

That said, I think I'll grab a cup of coffee and catch what MARISAnoele, who's been posting her video reviews of Japanese junk food on YouTube, has to say about カフェインスナック キャラメルマキアート味.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


The unholy alliance of Calpis (they of the badly named lactic acid and milk-based soft drink) and Ajinomoto (the MSG kings) have been flooding the market with yet another strangely named beverage, LacLac (ラクラク). In Japanese, that's pronounced as "rakuraku." Perfect nonsense syllables for a perfectly nonsensical drink. Ajinomoto actually bought Calpis a few years ago and this co-branded effort is one of the first results of the absurd levels that design, development and marketing can descend to. 

Something of a sports drink*, a health drink and a sort of playful Pepsi generation-ish quencher, it is certainly none of those. What it is is a watery, appley and artificially sweetened something-or-other. Ostensibly a mix of good lactic acid ferment apple juice, phosphorus and other healthy stuff, it's a bit of a stretch in justification of this sugar water. 

The company press release boasts of its ingredients coming either from Turkey, Germany, Poland, Austria, Ukraine, Brazil and/or Israel. This faux internationalism is merely about the reach of capital. Instead of making a coherent statement about taste, quality, nutrition or the simple fact of thirst-quenching, LacLac, even in its Babel-esque nonsensical name, remains hubristic, absurd and ultimately a product that will go the way of Pepsi Clear and New Coke into the dustbins of history. The sooner, the better.

Konishi Manami, disposable television and film starlet flacks for LacLac

*The subject of  "sports drinks" and the triumph of marketing artificial and useless concoctions over true human need is perhaps worthy of a longer essay.