PICK POCKY (2016)
Japan takes dessert very seriously. While it’s easy to appreciate the craftsmanship in traditional handmade sweets like wagashi and mochi, the country’s mass-produced goodies are just as commendable.
But among a sea of brightly-coloured and impeccably-packaged contenders, the heavyweight champion of Japan’s confectionery circuit is undoubtedly Pocky. Glico’s chocolate-covered biscuit sticks are both classic and modern: they’ve been on shelves for fifty years but are constantly reimagined in an endless variety of flavors, including a recent “adult” edition that sees cookie and coating blended with Japanese whiskey.
Pocky has become so famous in Japan that in 1999 it was granted its own official day by the Japan Anniversary Association–and not just any old day, but November 11. The eleventh day of the eleventh month seems insignificant until you spell it out and see a set of stick-like numbers that bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain dessert.
Pocky Day is marked by different events all over Japan. sugar fiends can win prizes, snap selfies to help create an online photo mosaic and celebrate their love for all things Pocky-related. But at its core, Pocky Day is just a crafty way for Glico to sell as many boxes of Pocky as possible. The concept behind the holiday and its “share happy” slogan is that the day is an opportunity to demonstrate affection by buying packs of Pocky for one another. Depending on the size of your social circle, this might be a pricey way to say “thank you for being a friend.”
It's also deliciously ironic. Though touted as a symbol of friendship, Pocky has an origin story rife with theft, deceit and sweet revenge.
To get to the bottom of it, we need to go back to the beginning. Before there was Pocky there was Pretz, Glico’s savory snack stick which remains successful in its own right. Three years later, Pretz was dipped in chocolate and called Pocky. Pocky shot to popularity in Japan and Glico raked in profits as their growing arsenal of stick-shaped goodies enjoyed relatively unrivaled success.
Everything changed with the arrival of Pepero. In 1983, nearly two decades after Pocky debuted on in Japan, South Korean manufacturer Lotte began selling a long, thin biscuit dipped in chocolate. Sound familiar?
It did to Glico. But since Pocky wasn’t available for sale in Korea, its parent company couldn’t build a case against such a blatant appropriation. As a result if this legal loophole, Pepero became a smash hit in South Korea while Pocky execs mourned the loss of a huge chunk of the Asian confectionary market.
But what happened next really made Glico livid. Pepero became the center of a viral story embedding it in Korea's popular culture. The story goes that on November 11, 1994, two Korean schoolgirls made a wish. In the hopes of becoming tall and slender like the number one–or a stick of Pepero, which just happened to be their favourite snack–they ate a handful of Pepero in a bid to invoke cosmic intervention.
I know what you're thinking: it seems unlikely that committing to eating a box of chocolate-covered cookies would be the fast track to a slim silhouette. Whether the story was concocted by a boardroom full of marketing execs or actually originated with an ill-advised pact, it caught on. Pepero Day officially launched in 1997 and in recent years has accounted for a staggering 50% of Lotte’s annual profits.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, Glico watched in disbelief as a Pocky knock-off eclipsed the real thing by an unimaginable sales margin. It may have been tempting to point a stick-shaped missile at the Lotte factory and do something drastic, but they resorted to a more classical form of revenge: an eye for an eye. Lotte had stolen from them, so they'd steal something back.
Two years after Pepero Day took Korea by storm, Glico made an identical announcement in Japan. As of 1999 (or year 11 in the Japanese calendar–that's right, they're still running with that whole "one" thing), November 11 would be henceforth known on Japanese soil as Pocky Day.
And that was that. Over the past 17 years, each Pocky Day has been accompanied by increasingly outlandish publicity stunts, including two that helped Glico break two Guinness World Records: "Most Mentions of a Brand on Twitter" in 2013 and the incredibly specific "Largest Online Photo Collage of Cookies/Biscuits" (one has to wonder just how many competitors vie for that title). Both Lotte and Glico continue to bank on their manufactured holidays, so their war seems to have bubbled to down to standard competition.
If you stay sensible and remember that buying Pocky doesn’t win you friends or a stick-figure physique, Pocky Day can be a fun excuse to stuff your gob full of sweets. Like the famous sticks themselves, the idea's a bit thin. But an nationally-mandated snack break? Now that’s something to celebrate.