Cultural trends are like tidal waves. They’re unstoppable. So when a canned food brand got its name associated with unwanted emails, the people at SPAM couldn’t do anything about it. It was either change their decades-old name or launch a huge marketing campaign to change public perception of the unique name. Neither endeavor was promising. But that’s not the only fun fact about SPAM.
10. What’s In A Name
OK, first things first. Before we delve deeper into the history and mysterious world that surrounds this popular canned food brand we need to shed some light on its name. SPAM. What’s up with that? And to get a clear idea of why that name and what it could possibly mean we need to disentangle our brains from its other less popular namesake, the detested unwanted flood of emails, and go back in years to a more innocent time. Back when a mouse was a rodent and the web was the home for a spider and neither of those was something you’d like to see around your house. Believe it or not, SPAM was the winning name in a naming contest held by the company. The naming contest might have been a marketing ploy to get people interested in the new and upcoming product. Or maybe they really had no clue what to name it. In the end, a person called Ken Daigneau came up with the name in all caps and walked away with $100. The all-caps name gave rise to the theory that SPAM was short for “special processed American meat” or maybe it was just an easy way to say “spiced ham.” Rumor has it that only a handful of people know the truth behind the name. And those people are keeping it a well-guarded secret. Either to keep the mystique of the brand or maybe because the origins of the name are not that flattering after all.
9. SPAM Was Made To Sell Pork Shoulder
Back in 1937, pork was a staple of many diets. A good housewife knew how to go to the butcher’s on her daily grocery shopping spree and pick the best cut. Pork was cheaper than beef and since the local butcher had the whole pig carcass on offer, you could walk in and order any piece you chose. A far cry from the prepackaged cuts you get at the meat section of the supermarket nowadays. Now while that system worked well for customers, it left the poor butcher and pork suppliers in the lurch. Because after a while it became clear that certain cuts were not popular. One of those was the shoulder which was the least favorite among customers. And no matter how low its price, people would avoid it. All this surplus and unwanted pork shoulder inspired Hormel Foods Corporation to do something about it. They ground the pork, added a little ham for taste and that’s how SPAM was born. Other ingredients include sugar, water, salt, water, potato starch to give it substance and glue everything together, and the ever-present sodium nitrite which acts as a preservative. As we’ll see below certain historical events will help launch the canned pork as a global brand that has a place on every shelf in every supermarket anywhere in the world. But for now, Hormel was only concerned with one thing: what name to give this ground pork shoulder?
8. WWII And SPAM
Certain man-made disasters while having catastrophic consequences can prove to be a blessing for certain people. The Prohibition, for example, denied people the simple pleasure of having a drink at the end of a long day at the office or the mill but it was a golden goose for the Mafia. Bootlegging proved to be a lucrative business which consolidated the mob and helped build Las Vegas. On a similar vein, World War II broke the records in the damage it caused and the millions of people who fed the war machine. But for some businesses, the war wasn’t all that bad. One of those was Hormel which only two years before the war started had launched their new ground pork product called SPAM. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “armies crawl on their stomachs.” This means if you can’t feed your army, you’ll definitely lose the war. A hungry soldier is a weak soldier and the problem becomes even more evident when you’re fighting a war thousands of miles away from your own turf. The US Army had a problem delivering fresh meat to the soldiers on the front in Europe and Asia where WWII was being fiercely fought. The soldiers grumbled about the lack of meat in their diet and the top brass in the military looked for an alternative. And there on a shelf in the local grocery was the solution to all their meat problems. SPAM had a long shelf life and was tasty and full of nutrients. And thus the original SPAM shipping started on a large scale. This introduced the brand to different cultures and opened new markets for the delicious pork long after the war was fought and won. Of course, it helped that SPAM came from the country that had won the war.
7. Even The Russians Loved SPAM
Let’s linger around WWII for a little more to reveal a little known fact about the international appeal of Hormel’s product with the mysterious name. Wars bring together people and countries of opposing political systems and interests. Even if temporarily. As we have seen the US side with the Russians (then USSR) in the war against Nazi Germany. The Cold War was still a decade away and right now the Americans and Russians were happily sharing one goal which was to defeat the Axis powers represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan. But the USA and USSR didn’t just share the same goal, they also shared their food as well. In this case, it was the Americans who offered their SPAM and it was the Russians who enjoyed the fruits of the capitalist system. We can assume that the Russian Army had the same problem the Americans had which was how to send fresh meat to the troops at the front lines. The Americans graciously offered SPAM to the Russians who accepted it also graciously. The Russians loved it so much that they consumed over 100 million pounds of the ground pork during the war. Late the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev said in a rare moment of honesty and gratitude, “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.” Presumably before lapsing into attacking the American capitalist economy which took advantage of the proletariat and sucked them dry.
6. Mass Production Around the Clock
If you thought that the 100 million pounds of SPAM consumed by the Russians was a mind-boggling number, you should wait to hear about the amount produced these days. In the age of mass production, SPAM is going strong as ever. According to data released by Hormel Foods Corporation, the giant food processing machines churn out 44,000 cans every hour. Let’s stop for a moment and contemplate this number and how much pork shoulder it involves. Of course, this production is not just for local consumption. There’s just so much SPAM that you can take on a normal day. The millions of cans of SPAM produced around the clock travel the world and land on the tables of most homes that don’t consider pork an abomination. But what really makes this number even more surprising is that we live in an age of healthy eating. Canned food is frowned upon and most alternative lifestyles and fad diets just shun processed meat and vilify it openly. Despite this public shaming, SPAM hasn’t missed a step and its production is still in full throttle. And if this data is an indication it seems that pork is still as popular as ever and it remains a staple of most diets.
5. Spam, The Sketch
Of course, when you’ve been a permanent guest in every pantry for the last 80 years, popular culture is bound to notice. But having your name mentioned in a TV show or having a can of SPAM showing in the background doesn’t amount to much in the age of Youtube and Instagram. But when one of the Monty Python write a sketch about your brand, then you know you have achieved immortality and your name will live forever. And before you jump in and speculate that the sketch was paid for by Hormel Foods Corporation, let me just remind you that back in the 1970s SPAM was a common household name. Also, it’s hard to think of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus as a bunch of guys who’d sell their talent for a few pieces of silver. Rather than shoving product placement down the viewer’s throat, they drew from what was popular at the time and created funny sketches around them. Spam was the name of the sketch and it was set in a cafe that served everything with SPAM. And this being Monty Python you can expect a song about SPAM to accompany the funny lines. This popularity of SPAM turned the brand name into a generic name that referred to all types of canned pork and sometimes canned meat in general. In some cultures you don’t ask for a can of processed meat, you ask for SPAM.
4. Popular in Hawaii
With 44,000 cans an hour, you know people can’t get enough of the porky stuff. But one US state takes their love of SPAM to the next level. It’s Hawaii where their average consumption of the ground pork is higher than any other state. What’s the secret behind this passion is anybody’s guess. Suffice it to say that SPAM had made inroads into the Hawaiian culture and had become a prominent ingredient in the cuisine there. One example of SPAM-related dishes is Spam musubi. It’s a traditional dish where a slice of SPAM tops rice and the whole thing is wrapped in nori. But that’s not the only indication of the strong bond Hawaiians have for SPAM. The market there has some varieties that you don’t get anywhere else. Step into any supermarket on the island and you can get Hot and Spicy SPAM, Honey SPAM, and SPAM with Bacon. And knowing how exclusive the Hawaiian culture is, one can only wonder at the success of SPAM in getting its figurative foot on the island and creating such a strong relationship that seems to be getting stronger with time.
3. SPAM Restaurant
Remember that Monty Python sketch about a cafe that serves menu items that have SPAM as the main ingredient? Well, a restaurant in Phillippines took that idea literally. The adequately named “Spam Jam” is a popular restaurant in the country and has been operating for years. Everything served here has SPAM in it. This includes Spam eggs and Spam spaghetti. And if you think this is taking it too far you should see the brisk business in the place from the moment it opens its doors until the last hour of the evening. And as with Hawaii, it’s really hard to pinpoint this unique love affair the locals have with this ground pork. There are lots of other brands offering the same processed pork, but somehow SPAM is the one that reigns supreme over people’s hearts here.
2. SPAM Museum
If you thought a SPAM restaurant was an outlandish idea, wait till you hear about the SPAM museum. Located in Minnesota, the museum features everything SPAM. This includes a room that features the process of making SPAM, a chance for you to pack and seal a can of SPAM, photos and videos about the history of Hormel, and of course guides who can tell you everything you need to know about the product and lots of fun trivia. You know you’ve won the culture over when you have a museum dedicated to your brand.
1. The Mascot
Long before the internet and social media, having a mascot was a sure-fire way to get your brand noticed. Advertising was mainly in newspapers, print magazines, the radio, and TV. And having a loveable mascot was a good idea to attract customers and sell products. Hormel had a mascot for SPAM. It was an angry looking pig wearing what looks like a Viking hat complete with horns and all. At its left foot stuck out the key opener. I guess sticking it at the pig’s foot was a sensible idea. After all, this was a family product. The mascot was called Slammin’ Spammy which as much as the name of the brand itself wasn’t very imaginative. I guess Hormel always had a problem with naming things. The mascot was shown throwing bombs and launching rockets. It also sported a bullet belt around its waist like the best cowboy in town. Which goes to show that the rules for marketing a family-friendly product were quite different in those days. To be fair, the mascot was introduced during the war and it was painted on bombers to motivate the troops and put the fear of the mighty American war machine in the hearts of the enemy. So maybe the angry face and bomb hurling weren’t intended for local consumption. Although it’s hard to see how a cuddly pig could instill fear in anyone’s mind.