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Japan: Blurry Lines Between Buzz and Truth – McDonald's Quarter Pounder Debut

Cultivating imported products into megahits is a big part of how consumer trends are created in Japan, and food is no exception to the rule. Last year, it was the American donut shop, Krispy Kreme. The year before that, it was the American ice cream shop, Cold Stone Creamery. Both are Western foods that are familiar to the Japanese, with a unique twist. Both gained fame for long lines in front of their stores. And both were carefully cultivated hits.

Another hit involving long lines made news last November. In a lauded marketing scheme to introduce the Quarter Pounder to the Japanese market, McDonald's reopened two shops in the fashion district of Omotesando and hippie hotspot of Shibuya as renovated “Quarter Pounder Shops” without using the McDonald's brand name. With a red and black color scheme, the stores only had two items on the menu: the Quarter Pounder and the Double Quarter Pounder. Neil Duckett reports on his trip to the Shibuya shop with photos.

Photo of the line at Shibuya shop by ames ef

Following a successful debut in Tokyo, McDonald's Japan announced [ja] that the Quarter Pounder debut in the Kansai region was also a major success – Midosuji-Suomachi shop in Osaka had received about 15,000 customers on the first day and broke sales records.

However, around 1,000 of those customers turned out to have been hired beforehand to make a purchase. Talk began to circulate around the blogosphere after Ubersite GIGAZINE posted a screenshot of a recent ad from the temp agency Fullcast in an article titled “Short-term job to ‘line up to buy and eat a new product’ announced – Hourly rate is 1000 JPY”. McDonald's says that it was market research to collect feedback, and that it wasn't an intentional attempt to create buzz.

Hiroshi Onishi questions that claim:

マクドナルドの人たちは、新聞とかテレビなどのニュースしかチェックしてなかった可能性があります。今どきは、ネットを検索し、ネットでの反応も含め、どういったことがネットに流れているのかとチェックするのは常識だと思うし、チェックしていれば、膨大なアクセス数を誇るGIGAZINEの記事を見逃すわけが無く、モニター調査だったという苦しい言い訳をしないで済んだと思いますね。

There's a possibility that the people at McDonald's only checked the TV and newspapers for news. It's common sense nowadays to read up on online reactions and keep track of the information that's making the rounds on the Internet. If they'd done that, there is no way that they could have missed that article on the hugely popular GIGAZINE. They wouldn't have had to come up with bad excuses about this fiasco being research for customer feedback.

Happy-kernel wonders about other companies:

しかし、ファーストフードの雄・マクドナルドがこのような、「サクラ」を使って行列を作らせ、販売促進をしていたとなると、もしかして・・・他社はどうなのだろう?と、思ってしまうのは私だけではないと思う。と言うのも「行列が出来ると、その行列に意味もなく並んでしまう」という傾向は、誰にでもあるからだ。

If McDonald's, the king of fast food, is resorting to hiring people like this to promote sales… what about other companies? It can't be just me that wonders about this. People have a tendency to join a line if they see one, even if they don't know what the line is for.

Takeshi Kouno refers to the story of the Emperor's new clothes and points out:

ていうか団体の中にそういう企業がいる場合、ちゃんと参加企業同士でチェックできますかというのがひとつ目の問題。そして、仮に自社がステルスやPPP(PayPerPost)をやってないとしても、クライアント(この場合マクド)と取引がある場合、ちゃんと批判できますかというのが二つ目の問題。広告出稿してもらってるから、別件で仕事してるから、そういう理由で黙殺しませんか。実際トヨタやパナソニックが問題起こしても、テレビではほとんど報じられないよね。少なくともいまのテレビに代表される旧メディアの広告代理店と媒体企業は言えてないわけで、同じジレンマに陥るのがオチじゃないかと。

The first problem is whether companies participating in the same project can check up on each other. The second problem is, if your company isn't involved in stealth marketing or PayPerPost, but conduct business with that particular client, will you be able to criticize them? I think people will turn a blind eye because that company is an ad owner or they work together on other projects. In reality, news about Toyota and Panasonic causing problems very rarely makes it on television. Ad agencies and media companies for main stream media like TV are just not able to speak up. At the end of the day, they're all facing the same dilemma.

Minesuke Nakamura gives his opinion from a journalistic point of view:

勘違いすべきでないのは、今回、マスコミが「怒って」いるのは、マクドナルドがモニターを動員したこと自体ではなく、その事実を伏せたまま、「過去最高売上」「徹夜の大行列」をアナウンスしたことにあります。それを信じて記事を書いた記者には、誤った情報を読者に届けてしまった、という「損害」が発生しているのです。

Make no mistake, the reason that the press is “angry” is not because McDonald's hired part-timers, but because they withheld that fact when announcing “record breaking sales” and “huge crowds overnight”. As a result, the reporters that believed the announcements and reported the news accordingly were hit with “damage” because they ended up delivering incorrect information to their readers.

「報道」としてメディアに露出される「パブリシティ」は、「広告」と異なり、おカネで買うものではありません。メディア(その背後の読者・視聴者)にとって価値のあるニュース素材を、それが「ウソ」「誇張」「間違い」ではないという信頼のもとに提供するから、企業にとっては、無料で宣伝できる、というメリットが発生します。マクドナルドが今回、メディアから失った「信頼」を回復するのは、容易なことではないと思います。

“Publicity” gained from media exposure as “reported news” is different from “advertisement”, and not something you buy with money. There is an underlying trust that the material offered by the companies to the news outlets (and consequently to the readers/viewers beyond them) is not a “lie”, “exaggeration”, or “mistake”. Because of this trust, companies can advertise their products and services for free. It won't be easy for McDonald's to win back the trust that they lost with this incident.

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