A Cup of Soup Dancing in a Microwave? In Times Square, Silly Sells

Why Cup Noodles is prancing inside an extravagantly strange 3D billboard

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On any given day in Times Square, a visitor can sit for a street artist portrait, get his name printed on an M&M, watch the Naked Cowboy playing his guitar and run from a marauding band of Elmos. With excitement like that on offer, how many visitors notice the billboards?

Hard to say, but the odds are good that tourists will take note of an ad that debuted last week. It’s the one with a cup of soup boogieing inside of a three-story tall microwave oven.

This is how Japanese food giant Nissin has elected to drop its marketing dollars to advertise an innovation half a century in the making. The maker of Cup Noodles recently did away with its familiar polystyrene cup in favor of one made from paper, letting instant ramen fans do something heretofore impossible: nuke their noodles.

“[It’s] even more convenient for consumers because now they can microwave the cup,” said Priscila Stanton, Nissin Foods USA’s svp of marketing.

“Our founder had a saying: Be meticulous and bold,” added CEO Brian Huff. “It doesn’t get bolder than being on a billboard in Times Square.”

Not just any billboard, either. The 102×180-foot colossus that turns the corner of 1540 Broadway at 45th Street is among the largest digital 3D signs in New York. Even so, Nissin’s challenge was still formidable: how to get visitors already dazzled by the spectacles of Times Square to ponder the comparatively blah message of convenience cooking.

Stanton and Huff recently sat down with Adweek to explain how they did it.

Cup Person’s big gig

The anthropomorphic dancing soup is called Cup Person, who trots and skips and knee slides so smoothly he could hold his own on The Lion King’s stage down the street. Daffy as it looks, this in-oven performance is the product of weeks of strategizing by Nissin USA and agency High Wide & Handsome.

As commercial history has shown, when a marketing maneuver is too bizarre for humans to pull off, a mascot can be just the thing. (While Cup Person may not be familiar to American consumers, he’s well known in Japan, where entrepreneur Momofuku Ando perfected instant precooked noodles in 1958.)

For the “playful” and “quirky” assignment of strutting around in a microwave oven, Cup Person “was perfect to deliver the message,” Stanton said.

Viewers might also notice lightning flashing around the character as he dances. This spectacle actually has nothing to do with zapping a snack. Instead, it borrows from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, another Japanese import. Much like the six youths who morph into superheroes, “for us it’s been a transformation from the polystyrene cup to a paper cup,” Stanton said.

The power of ridiculous

How much of that metaphor is the public going to pick up on? It probably doesn’t matter.

“It’s so bizarre and so off the wall compared to the other advertisers [in Times Square],” said Allen Adamson, managing partner of brand and marketing consultancy Metaforce. “If they had just put the cup of soup there with ‘Now Microwavable,’ it would be instantly forgettable. But a bizarre little guy running around inside a microwave is so ridiculous that people are going to look up. They’re going to remember that.”

It’s a paradox of this neighborhood famed for advertising that so many brands determined to stand out end up blurring together instead. The brand that punches through needs a gimmick to do it. Cup Noodles is continuing a Times Square tradition of performing billboards—“spectaculars,” as they were called.

camel's smoking man billboard with a smoker seeming yo breathe out smoke
For 26 years, Camel’s smoking man billboard puffed over Broadway.Getty

From 1941 to 1967, for example, Camel’s placard at 44th Street featured a raffish pilot who blew out smoke rings over Broadway. (The “smoke” was steam pumped through a piston-driven diaphragm.) A similar signboard for Super Suds detergent churned 3,000 soap bubbles into the air every minute.

Cup Noodles itself was part of this trend from 1996 to 2006 when it bolted a mammoth soup cup high up on the Times Tower where swirling clouds of steam spilled from the rim. Historically, Stanton observed, Cup Noodles’ dancing Cup Person billboard “represents our return to the culture.”

Hot, quick and surprisingly cheap

There’s one other market force contributing to the likelihood that Cup Person will win his share of looks from the 225,000 people traipsing through the neighborhood daily: Ramen is enjoying a boom right now.

According to the World Instant Noodles Association, global consumption has climbed from 4.5 billion servings in 2018 to 5.1 billion in 2022. With a 42% market share, Nissin USA is the leading domestic brand in the category, notching a 28% sales increase from 2022 to 2023.

With wages stagnating and a 2.25-ounce container retailing for 85 cents, Cup Noodles’ surging popularity isn’t exactly surprising. “It’s a value—affordable and approachable,” Huff said. “It’s convenient, and it’s a meal.”

And, for the next few weeks, it’s also staging one of the more unusual billboards in New York.

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