Did Hormel Foods Sue the Muppets For Making Fun of Spam?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

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 its Super Mario Brothers brand that it actually purchased the rights to a Super Mario Brothers 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 your brand is 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 stereotypically associated with an unwanted food product that people began to use the term in reference to unwanted e-mails and the term stuck. Today, people might very well associate the word “spam” more with junk e-mail than with the original meat product. In recent years, Hormel has gotten in on the joke themselves by strategically using humor to promote their famous product. For instance, in 2005, rather than taking issue with the Broadway musical Spamalot (by the folks form Monty Python, who famously mocked Spam on their television series during the 1970s), Hormel actually helped promote the hit musical.

This was not always Hormel’s approach, though. In the 1990s, they actually sued the Muppets for making fun of Spam!

Muppet Treasure Island was a 1996 film that was exactly what the title suggests, it was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, only starring the famous Muppet characters in most of the roles from the book.

A new character introduced in the film was Spa’am, a warthog who is chief of a native island people in the film. While initially an antagonist, he ends up helping the heroes against the film’s major villain, Long John Silver.

Hormel Foods did not like their Spam product being used in this fashion and actually sued Jim Henson Productions for trademark infringement.

Their claims were essentially as follows:

1. They felt that the character diluted their trademark, because they would become associated with a character who was “evil in porcine form.”
2. They felt that any merchandise of the Spa’am character would interfere with their own Spam merchandising (including a doll they made called “Spam Man,” who was a can of spam with arms and legs).

At trial, an expert in children’s literature actually testified for the defense, explaining that while Spa’am was not “classically handsome,” in the end he was not a bad guy and therefore it would not hurt Spam to be associated with him.

The court dismissed the dilution charges, with the judge getting in a bit of a zinger, opining that they 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, though, 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 where they realized that their approach was not 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 they’ve 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…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Andrew Jay McClurg for his piece on the lawsuit and thanks to CBS News for the Ettinger quote.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!

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