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AKB48 Takes Equal Parts Choir, Slumber Party and Beauty Pageant, Mixes Well

Jumbo Musical Group Is a Marketing Machine Unrivaled in Japan

By Published on .

Yasushi Akimoto
Yasushi Akimoto

Yasushi Akimoto not only created the world's largest pop band, AKB48, he's also master of a marketing machine that 's unrivaled in Japan.

The 60-plus -member girl group AKB48 is based on the idea of "idols you can meet every day" and is seen all over Japanese media. They perform daily shows at a theater in Tokyo's geek mecca of Akihabara that are so popular the tickets are sold by lottery. An oh-so-Japanese blend of sweet and sexy, innocent yet suggestive, the girls from Teams A, K, B and their members-in-training sell not only bubble-gum pop but also products ranging from coffee to "cram" schools -- specialized courses that help students meet specific goals, such as gaining entrance to university.

"They are the second-most beautiful girl vs. the No. 1 beautiful girl," said Noriko Hayashi, strategic planner at Beacon Communications in Tokyo. "The biggest difference compared to idols from past generations is , with past idols we think they don't go to the toilet or eat McDonald's. But [AKB48] will make funny faces and talk about dirty jokes. They've come down to the same level as consumers -- that 's the biggest appeal."

That appeal has spread across Asia, with official AKB48 stores in Hong Kong and Taiwan and a cafe in Singapore serving Japanese fusion food alongside helpings of AKB48 videos and occasional visits from group members. Singapore, a hub city that draws visitors from around the region, is also home to AKB48's first overseas theater, where group members perform a few times a month.

Fans include girls who want to be in the band, and guys who want to be with the band members. Management maximizes engagement by allowing fans to vote for the girl they think should be the top group member. Ballots are included with the purchase of a CD -- perhaps explaining why three consecutive singles sold 1.3 million copies or more, each within one week, earlier this year.

Mr. Akimoto has launched spinoff groups in other Japanese cities and last month announced the inaugural class of JKT48 in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. "JKT48 will become a bridge between Indonesia and Japan," he was quoted as saying.

It's not clear what changes will have to be made for Indonesia, a majority Muslim country, as AKB48 treads a fine line between "kawaii" (Japanese for "cute") and over-the-top.

The most-viewed video on its YouTube channel -- NSFW, and with more than 55 million hits -- features the young women pillow-fighting in lingerie, eating candy and kissing each other. And a recent ad that raised a few eyebrows showed idol Yuko Oshima nursing an infant with the message, "Would you make a baby with me?" Fans can upload a photo of themselves, which is combined with the idol's photo to create an image of a fictitious baby. The promotion is for the AKB48 internet service, which includes an email address and exclusive content for subscribers.

Japanese advertising giant Dentsu just ranked AKB48 No. 5 on its list of "2011 Hit Products in Japan," citing the band's contributions to lifting spirits after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country.

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