One type of bread is all the rage in South Korea. Or more precisely put, a sticker that comes with a type of bread is.
The item in question is named Pokemon-bbang 포켓몬빵—literally the Pokémon bread. Produced by food and dining conglomerate SPC (best-known for the Paris Baguette bakery chain found throughout the country), it features a cute little animated character from the Japanese children's cartoon and video game Pokémon on the plastic packaging. What the customer gets for the offline retail price of 1,500 won (1.25 dollar) is an unremarkable piece of pastry, and a sticker depicting a random fantastical monster from the show.
Over the past month it's become the fashion to collect all 159 different stickers. The edible content is just icing on a cake.
South Korean consumer fads come and go all the time, but the sudden craze for Pokemon-bbang was unexpected. SPC subsidiary Samlip first brought the product out on the market more than twenty years ago. It was a hit, but the company phased it out in 2006 when the show Pokémon's popularity was eclipsed by other animated counterparts.
In the name of "summoning the bygone nostalgia", Samlip relaunched the bread on Feb. 24, and sales are reportedly staggering: 1.5 million pieces in the first week and 7 million in the first month altogether.
Then again, it's not the first unlikely success story for a food product on the local market. In late 2011 a new type of instant noodle (ramyeon 라면), concocted by a participant on a reality TV show about male celebrities searching for unusual challenges, was picked up by a food label and produced for mass consumption. Kkokkomyeon 꼬꼬면 as it was called became a sensation, differentiated by milder flavor and color from conventional ramyeon characterized by red, spicy soup.
That trend didn't last and sales plummeted in 2012. It took two years for another food fad to conquer South Korea, this time in the form of Honey-butter Chips, sold by the food and beverage giant Lotte. Essentially sweetened potato chips, they offered the sugary-salty flavor combination that many domestic consumers favor (if you don't believe me, just drop by a neighborhood Paris Baguette location and see how many products meet the description). Nationwide shortage made headlines, although no one quite understood why the chips were so popular.
Such hype is a regular feature of the retail scene, and not just in the food business. Only a few months ago an unknown number of South Korean customers were queuing overnight outside high-end retail outlets so that they could get their hands on the limited quantity of designer fashion products—especially those from the French luxury brand Chanel—first thing in the morning. That passion seems to have finally waned, apparently after too many Chanel handbags flooded the secondhand market and drove the prices, and desirability, down.
It's a glimpse into a collective psyche that demands what's in fashion must be had immediately, until everyone else has it, too, and there is no point in having in any more. It says something if a fashion buyer at a major department store quipped derisively about the Chanel fever, "Why do they all carry such-and-such bags to weddings? The same brand and similar colors, as if someone high up had given a command."
Six weeks into the relaunch, Pokemon-bbang is going strong. News media claim that it's become so hard to get one's hands on it that some people hurry to Walmart-type big-box stores in early morning hours if not camping outright in tents on the premises. The business paper Seoul Economics Daily quoted one such eagerly waiting buyer as saying "it's 4:37 am now, and the first person in line apparently came at 11 pm last night."
There is an economic argument for the current mania. Some are apparently dusting off their old collections from two decades ago to sell. Each little sticker might fetch anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000 won (4 to 80 dollars), depending on how rare it is. Determined new buyers roam the streets from one convenience store to another hoping to buy up whatever stock they can find and resell them at fat margin. The phenomenon is dubbed the "sticker investment".
But a more plausible explanation draws on two ongoing phenomena: nostalgia, as Samlip's own marketing tagline invokes; and the trend toward infantilization of young adults.
Many South Koreans in their late twenties and early thirties grew up with Pokemon-bbang as children, and now gainfully employed, they are exercising their purchasing power to buy up things they could only dream of two decades ago.
"It speaks to their longing for stickers that they wanted so badly in their childhood but never could have. Having lived through a bitter childhood...now they are adults who can afford three, four boxes of Pokkemon-bbang," analyzed writer Jang Jae-yeol in a column for the private broadcaster SBS. "Maybe in doing so, young people gain a measure of comfort from the thought that they have become somewhat cool grownups."
Lee Eun-hee, a professor of consumer studies, told the country's largest newspaper Chosun Ilbo, "Young people who feel economic and psychological insecurity from the recession are buying up things they felt attached to in their childhood."
The South Korean economy grew four percent last year, so the idea of a downturn is rather incredulous, and no reliable sales data shows that those in their twenties and thirties are the main customer base for Pokemon-bbang; but it's true that nostalgia has been driving consumption in South Korea for some time.
The 2015 K-drama Reply 1988 is considered something of a forerunner when it comes to starting the fashion for retro goods, replicating many details of life in the late 1980s to acclaim. In the last four, five years young diners started to descend on so-called nopo 노포—rundown restaurants in operation for decades—and made them hip again. Teuroteu 트로트, a musical genre with roots in the colonial period, has made a comeback, not least thanks to American Idol-like talent shows on cable channel TV Chosun, a part of the Chosun Ilbo media empire.
But what does it say about a country that so many young adults may be hoarding children's cartoon stickers? It's a facet of the expanding 'kidult' market—items intended for children but increasingly bought by adults who feel no shame in collecting toys and other paraphernalia that conform to child-friendly aesthetics.
The growing acceptance of this lifestyle is in no small part reflected in the Japanese term otaku—standing for obsessive fans of obscure culture. The word has entered the contemporary Korean lexicon as a label many younger consumers are proudly adopting to signify dedication to a personal passion, however odd.
On the other hand, the Pokkemon-bbang craze isn't just about expressing individual identity. As online media Ohmynews put it, "many of those in twenties and thirties who bought Pokemon-bbang say they do it because other people were doing it or it was popular on social media. In operation is the psychology that they need to join the crowd if they don't want to be excluded from interpersonal relations."
The trend betrays all those contradictory impulses characterizing contemporary South Korea: wanting to belong, wanting to stand out, wanting comfort, and wanting validation as capitalist consumers.
And in a few months if not weeks, this, too, will be passé, replaced by some other fad.
Cover: Some of the Instagram posts found under the hashtag #포켓몬빵 (Pokemon-bbang)