Koreans Laughing at Themselves

Update: As I’ve learned from this comments thread, satire and irony is much more common in Korean popular culture than I gave it credit for. However, they’re also definitely used and expressed in very different ways by Koreans and Westerners, as this comment there makes clear.

Update 2: Consider this quick observation about sarcasm too.

To put it mildly, Koreans don’t often use satire and irony in their popular culture. And when non-Koreans do? Hell, that can even get them deported.

Which explains many of the Korean reactions to the video above, at first sight part of a US-made documentary dismissing Korean claims of cultural theft by foreigners. But actually, it’s one of a series of commercials by the Korean company Mr Pizza (미스터피자). Not only hilarious in their own right, I’m struggling to think of any similar Korean send-ups of real-life examples of excessive, often downright looney Korean nationalism. Or at least by as prominent a source as Jeong Woo-hyeon (정우현), chairman of the company since 1989.

Granted, some things Koreans are proud of only appear absurd in translation. But then there are cases like this completely serious claim that Christmas trees the world over are Korean, for instance, and that consequently the world owes Korea royalties. Live in Korea, and one hears of similar things every other week, let alone faces a daily deluge of related advertisements and government and NGO campaigns.

Indeed, many of these are referenced and joked about in the commercial, which is part of what makes it so funny. For starters, take the man at the beginning holding a placard saying “도둑” (thief): no big deal to most foreign observers, it encourages a double-take by those who expected it to say “독도” (Dokdo) instead. A little later, many of the images on the college dropout’s computer and on his walls are well-known on the Korean internet (especially that map). And so on.

(Source: ssuujin)

As of yet though, unfortunately the campaign doesn’t seem to have been picked up by the Korean media. While I expect it will be eventually (as I type this, a duplicate YouTube video has nearly 100,000 views, and many more comments), it has to be said that, expats aside, it will have the most appeal to Korea’s more cosmopolitan consumers, who are more likely to think out of the box. But that’s a good start, and indeed one of them is busy emailing her friends about it in the next room, many of whom are overcoming their instinctive defensiveness and ultimately enjoying it just as much she did!^^

(Many thanks to dogdyedblack, both for passing on the video and his astute observations.)

35 thoughts on “Koreans Laughing at Themselves

    1. I loved the part with Jeong Woo-hyeon myself: sooo many conservations I had in Korea have been just like that. And he gets a LOT of kudos for making himself the butt of his own joke(s).

      p.s. I forgot to mention in the post that I loved it (in a different sense) for making Jinju the home of pizza: the first place I ever lived in Korea, and I still think the prettiest.


  1. James,

    Nice for pointing out the map–had yet to catch that myself. Each time I watch this, I notice something else and am further impressed by the real cleverness and attention to detail that went in to making it. One thing I didn’t mention in my note to you was the use of music–I love the way you have the gayageum and then in the final “Buddhist” section they switch to the piri/danso (or whatever instruments they all are exactly–sorry, not a traditional music expert!). All the actors are great, perfectly styled for who they’re supposed to be, and speak with just the right tone….

    My daughter’s favorite place in our neighborhood is Mr. Pizza and although I’m always tolerant of it (sauce is way too sweet for my taste, but the crust isn’t bad, and the salad bar is decent), next time I’m going to go in with respect. I’d almost like to drop a line to 정우현 congratulating him……

    And, btw, I owe the tip of the hat in turn to a friend who initially pointed it out to me, in contrast to this unintentionally hysterical Korean CF which he’d also turned me on to. Not exactly a video of the “Christmas trees are ours” variety, but hilarious in its own way as an example of nationalist global advertising:


  2. Just again, as an example of the attention to detail, at 1:35, bottom left corner, the shots of all the various pizzas across Asia comes with the notation “Courtesy of Hang Jung University Press.” Sheer bloody brilliance…..


    1. LMAO!!!!!! @dogdyedblack – is this BBQ thing REAL?? “the highest quality Spanish extra virgin olive oil which is considered a gift by God.” OMG!!!!


      1. Yes, unfortunately, I’m virtually certain that that one is serious–and I lost it at the very same point. It seems pretty likely from the company name and the way the ad develops that its CEO is a devout Korean Christian…..I’ve wondered whether the Mr. Pizza ad was in part inspired by the totally over the top nature of the Genesis ad, even if it doesn’t pull out the “Korea invented fried chicken” trope (merely that we are beating everyone else in the world in this sphere b/c of inherent superiority…and a little help from God and Spanish olive oil, of course).


        1. Hi there. Not to interrupt this discussion but I think that the Genesis video isn’t an ad or viral marketing like the Mr. Pizza video, which is amazing. But I’m almost certain that the Genesis video is something that they would be playing at a shareholders or investment meeting to encourage people to invest and buy franchises.

          With that said I would like to announce that I am transferring from Bovine University to Chicken University at the start of the next school year.


  3. I noticed that the Chinese academic at the beginning refers to the Koreans dismissively as “those other people”. Is that a dig at Chinese chauvinism towards Korea?


  4. Hah, I showed this to a colleague at work, and she was not amused. Said something about “Foreigners already are making fun of Koreans and now we are making fun of ourselves? no, this can’t be a Korean commercial…”


      1. Apparently from teachers she’s worked with in the past and also apparently one comment I made in the past after talking about a principal having a teaching friend of mine record dialogues using 5 different voices, including an “old man” voice. Which combined with dialogues said by children, led to some hilarity. She remembers me saying after “What an interesting country you live in” and making a generalization about the country as a whole that was poking fun when it was one principal. She seems very sensitive about me making generalizations about the country, and in fact she was genuinely worried that I’d feel all Koreans believed in the nationalistic nonsense that the above commercial is making fun of after watching this. I suppose to her the kicker was I asked her about the colony of corea map and if she heard of it and knew the source (I was just curious), which she didn’t, but that helped cement her impression that I was getting the impression all Koreans were overly nationalistic. I’m not sure though if A: She is worried about me generalizing in general and not critically thinking enough or B: She is worried about the reputation of her country if it gets out there is dirty laundry here or C: Something else. She also made an interesting point about our interest in this video itself. She was worried that we have the impression that a large group of Koreans do think in similar ways to the satirical portrayal in the Ad. I suppose that does make me wonder a little more about what exactly is general popular sentiment and what is just the media latching onto a crazy or two to sell more papers? I mean, look at the American media…


        1. Thanks. I was writing my reply just as you were writing yours. Basically I think your penultimate question is spot on. The media knows the hot buttons to push to sell papers, but I think much of the population has moved beyond it, and then we get into this loop where it becomes hard to tell if A, B or C are in operation (and that goes for Koreans or non-Koreans; I think quantitative studies are probably needed at this point, but I get out of my depth on that…).


  5. @Krang: if you can push your colleague a bit more, I’m really interested in the reactions that this ad is provoking. Can you get her to articulate whether she found the use of irony specifically as a mode of humor unfunny, or whether it really offends her sensibilities to think that her fellow Koreans can poke fun at nationalist foibles?

    I’m watching the YT reactions closely and there do seem to be people who are esp. worried that foreigners might think that they’re serious (What if an Italian sees this and thinks we’re really trying to claim pizza as our own?), but there also garnering a lot of positive local views. The most frequently used adj. to describe it positively seems to be 참신하다 (original; innovative), and I’d say it has about as high a ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ rate as any YT clip I’ve seen. My favorite riposte so far (prob. not local) has been “Clever advert. Too bad it requires an IQ of over 20 to understand — they’ll lose customers because of that.”

    Not to belabor all of this, but not only do I think it’s brilliant in its own right (for more, pause on 0:41-0:42 and read the blog entries–genius…), I see it as a really significant moment in Korean popular culture. Would love to gather focus groups and have people discuss it to elicit reactions and see how they correlate with age/gender/travel experience/positive and negative attitudes towards Korea/multiculturalism, etc. etc.


  6. Ah, I think I don’t want to push too much further today, It is exam time ;) Though you can infer some thoughts from her disbelief in this being a commercial of Korean origin, and worry when I leaped to her next about a question about the colony of corea map that she was worried about me thinking of Koreans as overtly nationalistic… prior to that moment she did say the ad was funny… but mostly ridiculous, as if the style of humor was lost on her, she was mostly focused on how ridiculous the claims were. I had to keep reminding her this was not serious. I’m curious about the blog entries though, can someone translate them?


  7. If I get some time, I’ll try to do so–I want to see where this goes. May well turn into something worth doing an article on, esp. if campaign continues and provokes some debate in society…..


  8. Really cool video, and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Just a remark : it’s a bit ironic that on your intro, the word “deported” links to an article where the author starts by saying that “First, no one was fired or deported due to the police investigation.” which makes me feel that your statement is a bit misleading, unless you have more details on this matter.


    1. Agree and disagree. Sure, they technically didn’t get deported, but just as that same article (and numerous others) goes on to explain, the immigration department, angry at being lampooned, was still free to punish them by preventing them renewing their visas later, denying them the chance of ever living and working in Korea ever again. Even though some of them managed to fight that through powerful employers etc., the immigration department’s response was still effectively the same as deporting the performers – the only difference was in the timing. So I don’t think what I wrote was really misleading at all.


      1. just as that same article (and numerous others) goes on to explain, the immigration department, angry at being lampooned, was still free to punish them by preventing them renewing their visas later, denying them the chance of ever living and working in Korea ever again.

        From the March 2010 busanhaps link:
        First, no one was fired or deported due to the police investigation. However, several participants who were due to start new teaching jobs the following March, found that their schools were unable to process their visa applications due to the investigation, and therefore the schools had to withdraw the job offers. Unable to start a new job, some of these people had no choice but to leave the country when their old visas expired (I believe there were three such cases). Strangely, those of us who were renewing or extending contracts and visas at our current schools had no problem, and could stay in Korea. Of the people who were forced to leave, all eventually returned to Korea after a few months when the investigation was completed, and found just as good, or better jobs.

        While it does go on to say that the legal matter came up again during future renewals, even leading to a visa being denied initially, this is in no way unique to this case nor is it unexpected. I had a minor automobile-related mark on my record that got me blacklisted from leaving the country until the fine (which I did not know about) was paid. Later, in an unrelated matter related to a car accident where I was fined 100K won, an inaccurate “failure to pay fine” was on my record for a couple of years, which regularly got notice at Immigration both in the airport and Mokdong, and caused me to continue to get notice long after the fine was paid. I eventually got a sympathetic Immigration employee to amend my record so that I would stop getting questioned every time I came back to Korea or tried to get my visa renewed. While that worked, it still was on my record six or seven years after the original incident.

        Violating one’s visa regulations (which proscribe even going to school on a work visa without prior permission) is something that would reasonably raise a flag and even lead to a work visa denial in any other case not involving Babopalooza. Even people who have failed to get their Alien Registration Card past the ninety-day registration period and paid the 100K won or so fine have been denied future visas if they’ve done it in more than once in a five-year period.

        Korean immigration regulations can be rigid and not always clear, but this case and its consequences seem to be a lot more clear-cut and typical than it’s being made out to be.


        1. I’m admit I’m only familiar with the broad outlines of the Busan 9 case (and to be completely frank, not all that interested in it anymore), so I don’t dispute any of the details you mention. But I completely disagree that this is simply a clear-cut case of a visa violation, and no more than that.

          While I’m as guilty as generalizing about Korea and Koreans as the next guy, one inalienable truth about Korean immigration that remains is the inconsistency of many of its rules, and especially the complete arbitrariness and capriciousness with which they’re applied. To assert then, that you can invariably expect to get punished if you break the terms of your visa ignores how, much of the time, that’s actually entirely up to whims of the officials involved. Indeed, I’ve actually had more positive experiences with them then bad ones, including having my visa extended for 2 years rather than 1 because my kids were cute, and having a fine waived when it was clear that the visa violation was my ex-employer’s fault rather than my own.

          So, to argue that the immigration department being made fun of in the show had nothing to with their prosecution of the Busan 9 then, as if it was just like any other violation, sounds rather naive to me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s