As you may have heard if you follow weird fast-food news (or read Grub Street), Burger King locations in Japan will soon introduce a burger that has a “jet-black bun made from bamboo charcoal [and] a single frightful slice of tarry black cheese,” as Clint Rainey put it. There’s also “a dose of squid ink injected into the onion-garlic sauce,” further blackening the final product. It doesn’t sound very appetizing.
Well, if you’re American, it doesn’t. Clearly, in Japan, people aren’t as squicked out by the notion of black foods that aren’t normally black. I emailed Eva Hyatt, a marketing professor at Appalachian State University who studies food preferences, to see if she had any thoughts on why Burger King would have gone this route.
There are definite cultural differences in color meanings and associations between the U.S. and Japan. Here we associate black with death (unlike the Japanese, who associate white with death) and might think that black food is molded or spoiled (i.e., dead and inedible), or else associated with the flavor licorice.
The Japanese, on the other hand, are used to eating black seaweed, fermented black bean-paste-based foods, black walnut powder, squid ink, and a lot of gray, muted-colored foods, so a black burger bun and cheese would not seem too alien to them. In fact, they reserve subtle, soft grays, blacks, and muted hues for packaging for their own local Japanese-made foods, and associate bright, loud, primary colors (reds, yellows, oranges, blues) with foreign, Western food packages, whose people they consider to [be] brash and loud. So the black Kuro burger would be novel and attention-getting (since it’s made by a Western company), but not unappetizing. Also, young people (which is Burger King’s primary market in Japan) are a better market to introduce novel food colors to since they are not as set in their ways and like novelty and excitement.