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The World’s Weird America: How Some of Our Most Popular Products Are Seen Overseas

Why David Hasselhoff and Baywatch hit it big in Germany, Mister Donut took off in Japan, and the ritual of Slurpee-filling is so different in Taiwan than in your local 7-Eleven.
7-Eleven. (Photo: perhapstoopink/Flickr)

7-Eleven. (Photo: perhapstoopink/Flickr)

Sherwood Johnson was just a teenager on a Navy cargo ship when, you might say, he got bitten by the Southeast Asian bug. It was the Pacific theater in the thick of World War II, and the bug was probably a mosquito, because according to pizza industry lore, he contracted malaria soon thereafter. From the nerve damage Johnson suffered, he acquired the unsteady hands that inspired his nickname Shakey—a name he bestowed, in turn, upon America’s first pizza parlor in 1954.

Since its peak of around 500 locations across the United States, Shakey’s Pizza has become something of a relic in its home country. But—as a sort of cosmic reminder that the circle of life moves us all—that signature cracker crust and homey atmosphere are abundant now in the islands where “Shakey” Johnson first got his shakes all those years ago. Shakey’s International has a corporate office in Hong Kong and outposts in the Philippines, Singapore, and Japan, serving up cheese and pepperoni for the expats and Yankophiles, and toppings like egg, fish flakes, and mackerel paste to suit the local palate. The chain is hardly present in the U.S. outside of Southern California, but in Asia it’s still growing.

It’s a strange sensation, surrounded by foreign sounds, sights, and smells, to encounter one of these has-been American brands—Kenny Rogers Roasters in a mall in Kuala Lumpur, Mister Donut in a Kobe train station. A faint old memory surfaces when nothing else seems familiar, but something doesn’t seem quite the same. You wonder: Would the Gambler ever put marinara sauce on a chicken hot dog?

Pepsi promised more than its elixir could deliver when it burst into Taiwan with the slogan, "Come alive with the Pepsi generation," which translated locally as "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead."

If you weren’t around before 1990—and don’t live in Godfrey, Illinois, home of America’s last remaining Mister Donut—that chain might not even sound familiar. Before it took off in Japan, China, Thailand, and El Salvador, Mister Donuts was some of Dunkin’ Donuts’ stiffest competition. Launched by an ex-Dunkin’ executive, Mister Donuts began in 1956 as what founder Harry Winokur’s son-in-law has called “an absolute carbon copy of Dunkin’ Donuts.” The two chains spread across the U.S. and Canada, slugging it out like tough kids from the same Boston neighborhood, until 24 years ago, when Dunkin’s’ parent company bought out its rival. Nearly all the Mister Donuts in the U.S. changed names, but by then the franchise had already begun its march across the globe, powered by the Japanese firm that bought international rights years earlier. In a 2010 contest, Saki Aibu won the confusingly named Miss Mister Donuts crown.

It’s tempting to think, as you step off a hot Osaka street and into a 7-Eleven, that you’ve wandered onto a little patch of your home turf, a diplomatic mission of snack cakes and Coke. That familiar harsh lighting, aisles of too many snack choices—it starts to feel a bit like home, until you realize there’s no Slurpee machine. Or there is, but on this machine there’s a sign telling you to put the lid on after you fill the cup, not before; being an old pro at Slurpee-filling back home, you put the lid on first anyway, and spray melon Fanta slush all over. Because the hole in the lid is too small, or the spout is too big, or because, sure, 7-Eleven started in Dallas but the global chain has been Japanese-owned for almost 25 years and you’re in a different country so maybe you should try reading their directions. When you’re picking up your Slurpee, you can even pay your taxes and drop off your laundry at a 7-Eleven in Taiwan.

The stories behind these brand migrations—how, say, Bob’s Big Boy came to preside over an all-you-can-eat curry buffet in Hokkaido—are usually a lot less interesting than you’d hope. Mergers, takeovers, and franchising agreements spanning the decades, have combined to put that familiar mascot where you’d least expect. Tokyo-based Zensho Holdings operates 277 Big Boys in Japan today, along with outposts of the (American) Mexican restaurant El Torito and the (casual) dining chain Coco’s. Americans might know the latter as a place to go when Chili’s is full and they just can’t stomach Denny’s, but it has become abroad, in Zensho’s capable hands, a “restaurant [that] pays the closest attention to serving safe food in a secure environment so that everyone from children to the elderly can feel safe and comfortable.” All that safety comes at a price, though: in Japan, Coco’s doesn’t serve pie.

Sometimes it’s a matter of both image and economics that breathe a different kind of life into a familiar brand abroad: drawn in by the popularity of BBM messaging and the company’s cheap data plans, half of South Africa’s smartphone owners have a Blackberry. (It’s based in Canada, but still.) Blackberry claims less than one percent of the market in the U.S., China, and Japan, but it’s the number-one smartphone in Nigeria, a status marker of such significance as to inspire a Nollywood film, Blackberry Babes.

The allure of American (or Canadian) brands has helped elevate Colonel Sanders to loftier ranks than Harland Sanders could have ever imagined. Wagatwe Wanjuki, a New Yorker visiting her family in Kenya last Christmas, remembers being a little miffed to have traveled 7,000 miles so her cousins could drag her to one of Nairobi’s new KFCs. The chain has become a popular novelty, and even a status symbol in its most recent expansion, at some cost to local agriculture. But KFC in Kenya was also classier than in the U.S., Wanjuki says: there were all sorts of little design touches, couches, and workers who clear your tray when you’re done eating. “It was so different from the type that I see here,” Wanjuki says. “It was kind of surreal.”

Pabst Blue Ribbon, too, grew a little fancier far from home. In 2010, PBR China began advertising a dark, luxurious-looking bottle of something called Pabst Blue Ribbon 1844. It sounded ridiculous in the states, retailing at $40 for a 720-milliliter bottle—or roughly $39 more than you’d pay for that much PBR in Milwaukee. But really, the 1844 ale was an entirely different beer, aged in new imported whiskey barrels and made with malt PBR’s local brewmaster smuggled into China.

For all of the research they put into expansion abroad, even with concessions to the local markets, not all American exports are guaranteed hits. Wendy’s closed all of its Japanese outposts in 2009, but returned two years later with a new local partner and a wasabi avocado burger. In 2011, Panda Express announced, all jokes aside, that it was expanding into China, but hasn’t said much about it since then. In his book Brand Failures, Matthew Haig gathered examples of bad luck ruining a corporation’s best-laid plans for global domination: how Vicks’ expansion was stymied because its name sounds like “fuck” in German; how Coors’ old slogan “turn it loose” fell flat in Spain because it translated as “you will suffer from diarrhea;” and how Pepsi promised more than its elixir could deliver when it burst into Taiwan with the slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi generation,” which translated locally as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”

But it’s on the strength of just such an accident that Kit Kats became so wildly successful in Japan (for the record, they’re British, not American). The name Kit Kat sounds like the good-luck wish “kitto katsu”—“surely win!”—giving it an advantage that other snack market interlopers could never match. It’s developed a rare popularity evident in all of the strange Kit Kat spin-off flavors developed in Japan, like wasabi, soy sauce, and candied sweet potato. A boutique shop dedicated to Kit Kats opened in Tokyo earlier this year.

Can you ever hope to predict what the rest of the world will learn to love about American exports?

That’s a question Hollywood producers are asking as they develop any new blockbuster, now that the international box office has grown to more than three times the domestic take. Last fall, Bloomberg’s James Gibney accused the makers of Gravity of adding Chinese elements to the plot just to curry favor with one of the world’s biggest, most tightly controlled markets.

“It's been a lot of effort to sort of figure out what sort of message in a film would be most appetizing to the largest global audience,” says Johanna Blakley, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center. “I mean, they'd love to know that. Quite often, they're still surprised by the films that seem to really take off.”

Blakley studies the intersection of Hollywood, politics, and culture, and says people too often assume that a film or a television show is popular abroad because it resonates with the local culture, or because it taps into a raw human desire like the sight of pirates blowing things up. Outside the U.S., Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (the fourth one) is the sixth-highest grossing film in history.

But there are also the cultural exports that don’t fit at all with the local discourse, that are popular around the world because the values they display are so different. According to a leaked State Department memo from Saudi Arabia, Desperate Housewives is one such show. “Those messages are just received in very different ways in very different cultures,” Blakley says, “so it's incredibly hard to predict.”

Sometimes what makes American cultural exports popular overseas is the novelty factor—it might be a lousy show, but captivating in its lousiness like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” That might explain, for instance, the mysterious allure of David Hasselhoff and Baywatch decades ago. “People were appalled that it was beloved abroad, and it made Americans even more likely to claim that, you know, who understands these foreigners, these crazy people?” Blakley says. But it was enjoyable because people enjoy things that don’t make sense—the way an American might gawk at Kenny Rogers’ chicken hot dog doused in marinara, or an apple-vinegar Kit Kat.

“They enjoy things that they've never seen before, that are shocking, that are surprising, that are unprecedented, and seem to be a window into a very strange world,” Blakley says. “And Baywatch seemed that way.” Still does.