MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Hormel Foods sued the Muppets over making fun of Spam.
In the world of big business, there are few things quite as powerful as a well-known brand name. Because of this, companies will often go out of their way to defend their brands from being diluted by other companies. Heck, as we pointed out in an old Movie Legends Revealed, Nintendo is so protective of Super Mario Bros. that it actually purchased the rights to a Super Mario Bros. porn parody to keep it off of the market. That strategy is all well and good when your brand name is a respected one, but what if it’s one that has negative connotations? What if your brand is Spam?
Spam is a brand name for a canned meat product by Hormel Foods consisting of pre-cooked pork shoulder with some ham mixed in there as well. A lot of people have made fun of Spam over the years, and it eventually became so associated with an unwanted food product that people began to use the term to refer to unwanted emails, and the term stuck. Today, people may very well associate “spam” more with junk email than with the original meat product. In recent years, Hormel has gotten in on the joke by strategically using humor to promote its famous product. For instance, in 2005, rather than taking issue with the Broadway musical Spamalot (by the folks from Monty Python, who famously mocked Spam on their 1970s television series), Hormel actually helped promote the show. That was not always Hormel’s approach, however. In the 1990s, the company actually sued the Muppets for making fun of Spam!
Muppet Treasure Island was a 1996 musical adventure comedy that’s exactly what the title suggests: an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, only starring the famous Muppet characters in most of the roles. A new character introduced was Spa’am, a warthog chief of the native island pigs in the film. While initially an antagonist, he ends up helping the heroes against the film’s major villain, Long John Silver.
Hormel Foods didn’t like its Spam product being used in this fashion, and actually sued Jim Henson Productions for trademark infringement. The company’s claims were essentially that the character diluted the Spam trademark, it would become associated with a character that was “evil in porcine form,” and that any merchandise of the Spa’am character would interfere with Hormel’s own Spam merchandise (including a doll “Spam Man,” who was a can of spam with arms and legs).
At trial, an expert in children’s literature testified for the defense, explaining that while Spa’am wasn’t “classically handsome,” in the end he wasn’t a bad guy and therefore it wouldn’t hurt Spam to be associated with him.
The court dismissed the dilution claims, with the judge getting in a bit of a zinger, opining that the court would think that “Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine source of pork.” Ouch.
The court also dismissed the merchandising claim, finding that no one would confuse the two products. For what it is worth, however, when Spa’am later showed up in a Muppet video game, he was named “Pig Chief,” so maybe the Muppets didn’t want to fight again.
Hormel Foods CEO Jeff Ettinger recently recalled this case as the moment the company realized its approach wasn’t working:
I think maybe our low moment with it was when we decided to sue the Muppets. There was a movie they put out that had a Spa’am character that was an evil character. I think that was kind of a turning point to say, you know, I guess we really need to be with the joke.
That’s what Hormel has been doing recently, and it seems to be working, as Spam sales have seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years.
The legend is…
Thanks to Andrew Jay McClurg for his piece on the lawsuit and thanks to CBS News for the Ettinger quote.
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