Off-Brands In My Anime – This Week in Anime

With the new, official WcDonald’s campaign, Nick and Nicky revisit some of the off-brand appearances of real products in anime and other official campaigns that seem too weird to be true.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, As Miss Beelzebub likes it., Brave Bang Bravern!, Code Geass, A Sign of Affection, Sasaki and Peeps, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, Blood Blockade Battlefront, and Rent-A-Girlfriend Season 3
are streaming on Crunchyroll. Himouto! Umaruchan, Scum’s Wish, “Ippon” Again!, and Kubo Won’t Let Me Be Invisible are streaming on HIDIVE. Tiger & Bunny and Tokyo Revengers: Christmas Showdown are streaming on Hulu.


Hey Nick, I’m going to WcDonald’s. Do you want anything?


Yeah, can I get uh, um, a lemme get a Chicken Wcnuggies combo with a Dr. Pepper, a WcFloopy shake, and uh, nah, I won’t feel like going out later. Get me a Large Wac, and hold the onions.

Some of you may have seen the recent announcement of McDonald’s anime-inspired ad campaign in which they’ve temporarily embraced turning those golden arches 180 to transform into its anime alter-ego, WcDonald’s. Such tongue-in-cheek parodies are common in anime that want to avoid getting sued by real brand holders but want to still be recognizable to audiences. However, the association with WcDonald’s and anime has become so common that the real brand has now claimed it for themselves, going all out with several short manga and animated commercials by Studio Pierrot.

However, it’s not the first time Brands and Anime have collided with each other, and it certainly won’t be the last
Technically, 99% of the anime we watch are advertisements for some brand. Some are just more subtle about it than others. Yet, there’s an extra-commercial space where the storytelling necessities of narrative fiction cross with the fact that we live in a world constantly surrounded by ads for everything. Nothing quite captures the everyday mundanity of life like having your characters eat at a highly recognizable fast food joint, y’know?

Of course, getting the license to use all that highly guarded iconography is pretty pricy, so the next best thing is to make a bootleg Mickey Ds that barely skirts the line of legal distinction.

The results are both amusing and somewhat creative in their usage even if the only purpose is to avoid legal action. Maybe it’s the brainwashing already given to me by years of advertisement, but I can’t help but smile when I see it. It’s oddly relatable to see a character in an anime chomping down on a Big Mac, a piece of The Colonel’s fried chicken, or downing a suspiciously red-labeled bottle of brown soda. Part of this is probably because some of the most well-known brands originate from the United States of America, and so this love of greasy fast food icons flows through my bloodstream as we speak.

Speaking personally, I am completely and utterly numb to advertising in general. Like every red-blooded American, I’ve grown up in a hellscape where every spare inch of screen space in my life is flooded with images and text trying to sell me crap. When I don’t have an ad-blocker active, my brain can still filter them out like background noise. People who talk about watching the Super Bowl for the ads are morally suspect and potential threats depending on their taste. I do not give a damn about brands. However, I find the ways brands shape human lives and relationships fascinating. And seeing fictionalized approximations is a distinct aspect of that topic.

Besides, while many of the brands in anime may look familiar to non-Japanese viewers like me, they’re still distinctly the Japanese version of them. So, in a way, it’s a bit of a window into another country’s interactions with said product. How many of you were baffled the first time you saw anime characters eating Kentucky Fried Chicken for Xmas dinner? Only to learn that it’s a tradition following a successful advertising campaign from the 1970’s.

While it might be connected to a product, it’s still a reflection of everyday real life, and therefore, it makes sense that art would want to emulate that.

Personally, some Colonel on Xmas would beat some of the cooking I’ve had at family dinners.

As Xmas is a foreign holiday originating from the West, Japan lacks many of the traditions that bring Xmas spirit. Most Japanese people aren’t Christian, they don’t have access to turkey, and some workplaces might not even give the day off. If anything, Christmas in Japan was mostly used as an excuse for couples and shopping, while family gatherings are held during New Year’s. Having a big ole bucket of chicken is good year-round, so of course, it’s also good for the holidays.

Those lucky souls will never know the horrors of my great aunt’s attempt at ratatouille. Still, it’s pretty fun to see the types of franchises and products I’m surrounded by daily presented with a completely different cultural history and context, like how every other country has way better food at McDonald’s than in the US. Or they get cool menu items that nobody here would ever think of carrying.
Also, my crummy local American McDonald’s doesn’t have the Char Aznable stamp of approval. This real 2022 advertising campaign even won a “Promotion Licensee” award from the Japan Character Award 2023.

I must be missing some context for that because nothing would make me want a burger less than having it handed to me by Char. I would rather eat directly off the crotch-high “magic tray” from the horrifying original Ronald McDonald than accept anything from that man.

Look, some people would honestly pay more money for Char to specifically spit in their food compared to the regular disgruntled fast food worker, and who am I to judge them? At least it’s funny. There’s something strange about seeing an anime character interacting with real life in such a way that you don’t see in American advertising. It creates an almost 2.5 dimension. Char is real, and he wants you to give yourself a Char’s Counter-Heart-Attack with the special Newtype White Triple Cheeseburger.

I’m just saying, maybe pick a more trustworthy face for your advertising campaign. Otherwise, you end up with terrifying stuff like Gendo Ikari smiling like a crazed murderer while he shaves. There’s an art to selling stuff, and it does not involve getting cartoon war criminals to endorse your product.

Gendo without facial hair might be the opposite of encouragement if you want to convince people that they look better without it. He’s scarier.

Honestly, advertising is at its funniest when it just fumbles the bag as hard as possible. I severely wish there was still an official upload of that commercial where the president of Domino’s Japan sweats his way through explaining what Hatsune Miku is while not being able to pronounce either part of her name. Alas, Domino’s are cowards and have since deleted the video.
Yeah, one thing I discovered is that it’s tough to find some of these advertisements from official sources as most of the uploads have been made private because I guess companies are all cowards and cannot be convinced keeping their stuff archived is a good thing. Otherwise, I could’ve used this point to talk about the anime studios that have done work for advertisers, like the one Studio Colorido McDonald’s recruitment ad feat AKB48. But alas, instead, I’ll have to settle for the more recent music video directed by Studio Trigger‘s famed Yoh Yoshinari in collab with singer Ado for the South Korean confectionary company Lotte Wellfood, titled “Chocolat Cadabra”. The MV turns candy-making into Little Witch Academia-style magic!

See, that’s the kind of crass commercialism I can get behind: giving money to a talented artist and letting them make some cool stuff that is technically selling me something but also rules all on its own. This isn’t even the first time Lotte has done that exact thing. While Yoshinari’s Candy Witches are great, Rie Matsumoto‘s chocolate ad with BUMP OF CHICKEN is a genuine classic:

Advertising is an art in itself, and in the real world, a lot of art has to rely on the financial support of advertisers to survive. Tons of artists and studios got their start by doing gigs in advertising. In the anime world, we know that Makoto Shinkai made his name doing commercials way before your name.. Such is also the case for historically famous animators like Richard Williams, and even countercultural icons like Peter Chung were not above saying no to a commercial or two. To disregard its artistic qualities just because it’s tied to selling you something is denying that in a consumerist world, art and money are connected.
While the nature of commercialism is necessarily hostile towards creative expression, it’s not entirely antithetical to it either. I have mentioned more than enough times in this column that Gundam Build Fighters is an excellent entertainment piece with tons of outstanding artistic accomplishments. It also exists to sell toys to children and children-at-heart and does so with the shameless fervor of a coked-up carnival barker. You can do both, but it requires everyone involved to look in the same direction, which is why most non-bootleg anime brand deals amount to literally slapping a logo onto characters.
Part of this is also based on what most people’s experience with product placement is, like in Western films and movies when most people imagine product placement, the image is an incredibly jarring scene of a character loudly showing off the latest Macbook or Surface. It often has little to do with the story; in fact, it can even break the audience’s immersion and invite a subtle cynicism when they recognize it. However, it’s an oddly nice surprise when I see something like the characters in Bang Brave Bravern proudly downing a Kona Big Wave.
It all depends on the context. It works in Bang Brave Bravern because the characters drinking in a bar make sense. The choice of Kona works because they’re in Hawaii, and it’s employed during regular downtime before anything big goes off. It’s smartly implemented. Compare this to Code Geass, where the characters had a heartwrenching funeral in the rain and then went home and ordered Pizza Hut.

Oh, wait, they ordered Generic Pizza because the licensing deal ran out, and now the version available on streaming has removed all the branding.
Almost as sad as losing the branding in the Netflix version of Tiger & Bunny, therefore also removing some of the world-building where superheroes are products. Branding can do more than ruin a watching experience. It also happens that in Bang Brave Bravern‘s case, it wasn’t so much of a marketing push but a tribute as Big Wave is director Masami Ōbari‘s favorite beer. He requested permission to include it, making it more of an in-joke on himself and overall adding to the campy meta-ness of Bang Brave Bravern!

In all cases, though, the story around them matters and informs the world of the anime for the viewer. Whether you think it is a positive or negative choice depends on the framing and whether or not you think the inclusion adds to your experience

Funny you bring up Tiger & Bunny because that’s one where they had a clever, cheeky way of working with their various sponsors. Half the point of that show is how the commodification of real superheroes clashes with the ideals of heroism our main character aspires towards. There’s meant to be a very deep irony to him rushing in and saving the day while decked out like a NASCAR vehicle. The main suit was designed with those embellishments in mind, so now that the sponsorships have been removed (not just on Netflix, but Hulu as well), he just looks naked.

It’s a pretty perfect example of how even clever art trying to work within the confines of corporatism still winds up getting compromised by it, even years after the fact.
There are severe limitations to real-world licensing, even if it’s technically sanctioned. However, stuff like WcDonalds (kinda) and Costaco are not real and, therefore, cannot hurt me or the anime. I genuinely did not expect to have the first date in A Sign of Affection take place at Costco, a warehouse store famous for selling things in bulk, but honestly, it wouldn’t be the same without it. They even joke about Costco’s specific oversized foods, and it’s such a cute moment that it feels like a natural and plausible good time-out. This wouldn’t work if it had to be erased.

That entire episode felt like a fever dream, a sensation that wasn’t helped when a second Anime Costco popped up in Sasaki & Peeps that same week. They even had the same legally distinctive name!

Truthfully, I didn’t even realize Costco was a thing in Japan, let alone that so much of its unique identity as a company was preserved over there.
In A Sign of Affection, it’s even more significant. Later, Yuki and Itsuomi go back to his place to share a Costco-style pizza and a heartfelt conversation using the pizza box as a medium to accommodate Yuki’s deafness, leading to something genuinely sweet and memorable tied together by American-style pizza.

It’s one of the most authentically American pizzas you can get in Japan. Or so I’ve heard from American friends who have traveled and lived there.
It’s a strangely fitting choice for a show that’s all about communication and branching out across cultural lines. Though my all-time favorite Fake Anime Brand experience is in Scum’s Wish, where all the characters go to the same off-brand Denny’s after they have miserable, unsatisfying sex.

Denny’s in Japan is different from the ones in the US, but nothing has ever captured the vibes of that particular franchise like depressed teenagers having post-coital shame meals at 1 am.

The existing impression of the brand adds this tone to the anime that wouldn’t exist if they were just at a generic diner. It’s much closer to reality. Denny’s in America are just places you go when nothing else is open. In high school, people used to go to Denny’s to do their all-nighters and drink infinite coffee. So, stuff like this makes me feel closer to the characters in the anime, even if I’ve never been in such a sadsack relationship.

For those who have never been, Denny’s is the breakfast diner for cowards and compromisers. It’s where you go when you’re too sad for IHOP but not brave enough for Waffle House. Anyone who says they’ve had a good meal there was left unfinished by God. This is why I laugh every time it shows up in anime, without exception.

A lot of these also seem to be an amalgamation of the native Japanese diner brand Jonathan’s that serves both American and Japanese cuisine family restaurant style, similar to the American ones. It’s rumored that JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure creator Hiroko Araki used to meet his editor at Jonathan’s, which inspired him to name the main character of his new manga, Jonathan Joestar. However, Araki claims that this is a myth. Though he did go to plenty of diners and Italian restaurants.

On the topic of Johns, do not let Blood Blockade Battlefront fool you into thinking Johnny Rockets is good. You will be set up for spiritual disappointment.

Episode 6 of Blood Blockade, titled “Don’t Forget to Don’t Forget Me,” might be one of the biggest gaps between the story and the brand I’ve ever seen. It’s a fantastic standalone episode that will make you believe that the hands of god himself crafted the hamburger patties, so any real-life equivalent is certain to be a disappointment that’ll leave you crying just as much as the episode itself, maybe.

I’m personally pro-Johnny Rockets, as my mom used to take me there when I was five, and I’d still prefer it to the Smashburger that replaced it. A true tragedy. Burger joints aren’t the same unless they have a jukebox.

I wish I could forget some of the food I had there whenever my friends would drag us there to hang out in high school. But I suppose that’s the power of fiction: much like real-life advertising, it can make even the most mediocre burger look like perfection in the right hands.

Not only can anime use branding to emulate real life, but it can also improve it. A burger isn’t just a burger but a fantasy. It’s the nostalgia you feel when you remember the times eating with your family and friends. Advertisers know this feeling well, too, and so they’ll use it to boost sales, but it’s all just a story in anime. It would be inauthentic and dishonest if we only lived in a world full of generics and didn’t have these particular sensations and relationships to the corporate world around us. Real life isn’t like that, so anime shouldn’t be like that. It’s only because of the same corporations’ litigations over their brand image that we can’t show life as we know it. I hope everyone walks out of this conversation with a deeper appreciation for the creative liberties anime takes when trying to show it.

I hope they come out of this being more critical and aware of the products being sold to them, even when they’re not technically being sold. Always be wary of sponsored portrayals. And under no circumstances should you ever, ever use a Rent-A-Girlfriend branded condom unless you want to end up eating at Denny’s.