If the goal was to generate buzz, McDonald's Japan struck the mother lode in January when it launched its new dessert. For at least a week, the new offering was a key topic of conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and generated headlines around the world. Unfortunately for McDonald's, however, it wasn't the new product people were talking about, but its name translated into rather lewd English.
“Didn't McDonald's Japan understand how bad it sounds in English?” was a common reaction. “What were they thinking?”
The name of new dessert offered by McDonald's in Japan? Otona No Kuriimu Pai (大人のクリームパイ). Available in semi-sweet ‘frommage’ and Belgian chocolate flavors, directly translated, the dessert's name means “Cream Pie for Grownups.” But the English-language Twitterverse preferred a more juvenile translation with pornographic connotations: Adult Cream Pie.
I’m amazed it doesn’t look pixelated.https://t.co/PrIXfFjdzs
— 9GAG (@9GAG) January 13, 2020
For some English-speakers, the “Adult” in “Adult Cream Pie” brought to mind the “adult” in “adult” (pornographic) videos, while “cream pie” was immediately associated with slang for a very specific sexual act. It's not a particularly grown-up topic of conversation, but such is the level of discourse in January 2020.
It didn't help that the cream pie controversy came shortly after Japanese car maker Subaru announced the launch of its new Forester Unlimited Customized Kit Special edition (F.U.C.K.S. for short) on the Singapore market. Following the uproar, Subaru of America lamely distanced itself from the launch, but the pump was primed for a lewd online discussion about Japanese cream pies.
The dirty connotations of the McDonald's dessert was reported on by a variety of major English-language news outlets around the world, including Kotaku, News.Com.Au, GaijinPot, Lad Bible and Daily Mail.
McDonald's Japan is mocked for launching Adult Cream Pie dessert https://t.co/TuEQOZkSd2
— Daily Mail Online (@MailOnline) January 13, 2020
The cream pie fiasco renewed calls for Japan to pay more attention to the nuance and innuendo of the foreign loanwords it appropriates.
“Always hire a native English speaking consultant before launching your product,” exclaimed one member of a popular Facebook group for professional translators I belong to.
‘Can be enjoyed by grownups’
The actual meaning of Otona No Kuriimu Pai (大人のクリームパイ) is completely innocuous in Japan. There are all sorts of dishes incorporating “cream” that are popular in Japan, especially in winter, such as “cream stew“.
Otona No (大人の) can be translated into English as “adult”, which as a loanword means “pornographic” — pornographic videos in Japan are known as “adaruto” (adult) “bideo” (video), or “AV”. However, in this case a Japanese person looking at the menu at McDonald's would never associate Otona No with the English word “adult”.
A more nuanced translation for Otona No Kuriimu Pai would be: “a cream pie that is mildly sweet, and can be enjoyed by grownups.”
And, needless to say, most adults in Japan — at least women, the target market of the new McDonald's product — would not immediately associate “cream pie” with the sexual act, although the meaning of this English slang seems to be well-known in some “adult” corners of the Japanese Internet.
Taking a look at Japanese social media, the conversation did indeed seem to be focused on how the desserts actually might taste, rather than on any sort of childish sexual innuendo.
One fairly popular article on blogging site Naver Matome discussed how delicious the new pies were:
The new “Cream Pie for Adults” that everyone's talking about is delicious!
Another mildly popular Naver Matome blog post provided a more in-depth product review. A third blog post that discussed the more lewd English-language connotations of the McDonald's Cream Pie barely generated any interest, despite including the presence of “pervy” (eroi) in its title:
Is it pervy? Or are people just overthinking it? “Cream Pie for Adults” goes viral.
Responding to a calls on Twitter that McDonald's should have asked a native English-speaker to review the product name before launch, independent journalist Thoton Akimoto disagrees:
— Thoton Akimoto (@Thoton) January 11, 2020
I don't agree. Otona No Kuriimu Pai is Japanese. Whatever the English-speaking world thinks it means has nothing to with Japan. For example, even if we Japanese think it's strange when Italians say “Ti Manco” (note: this phrase includes a sexual slang word in Japanese), we would never complain.
It's also unclear why people believe McDonald's Japan should prioritise English-speaking residents of Japan when it comes to marketing campaigns — English speakers are in a distinct minority among foreign residents and visitors.
In 2018, the top three nationalities of foreign residents in Japan came were Chinese, South Korean and Vietnamese, none of which are English-speaking countries. Nearly two-thirds of foreign tourists come from Korea, Taiwan and People's Republic of China.
While the use and misuse of English in Japan can be both amusing and irritating to a relatively small number of people, most residents of the country, Japanese and foreign-born alike, would never notice, or even pay attention.
Finally, I wonder why no commissioning editor or adult at one of the many English-language news outlets that ran this story didn't feel a sense of shame or embarrassment for spending more than ten seconds laughing at the childish innuendo of “cream pie” and then moving on with their day.
The main point of this dessert, after all, is that adults should sometimes possess more subtle, adult tastes. But maybe that is something that makes Japan so distinct from some other parts of the world.