America's favorite canned meat finds its funny bone.

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 9 2002 2:31 PM

The Lighter Side of Spam

Finding a funny bone in canned meat.

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Spam, the luncheon meat in a can, has what you might call a challenged brand. The challenge isn't that people haven't heard of Spam—pretty much everyone is familiar with the stuff, which was introduced by Hormel back in 1937. According to a history at SPAM.com, the name is a mushing-together of "spiced ham" and was born of a contest with a $100 prize. Perhaps a meat product that is scrambled and pummeled by industrial processes into a brazenly inorganic geometric shape once seemed futuristic and exciting. But like a lot of things that once seemed futuristic and exciting, Spam now seems funny and maybe a little creepy. You can't help but imagine a big vat of, I don't know, whipped pig, being poured into those cans. It doesn't make you think of ham, it makes you think of Soylent Green. (And as if all this weren't enough, "spam" has of course become the noun referring to e-junk-mail, one of the most annoying aspects of the online age.) To be blunt, the Spam brand lives mostly as a punch line, and the challenge is that everyone has heard of it.

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I hasten to add that I am not attacking the quality of Spam, which I'm sure is first-rate. It's just that I've never had the guts to try it, for reasons suggested above. And if the Web site is any indication, the masters of the Spam brand are perfectly aware of its rep and even have a sense of humor about it. The history cited earlier begins, "Bread lines, Dust Bowls, Bonnie and Clyde, New Deals and plenty of raw deals, the '30s were tough. Yet conditions like that gave rise to heroes"—such as Spam. But elsewhere the site notes that more than 5 billion cans of the stuff have been purchased (and I guess consumed) over the decades, so Spam is not simply a laughing matter.

That's why Spam's new advertising campaign is, at first glance anyway, a little bewildering. The background material from its ad agency (BBDO Minneapolis) is surprisingly straightforward in describing the mission—to revitalize a "high-volume, profitable icon brand that's starting to decline." The theme of the campaign, anchored by two TV spots, is articulated in the tag line "Crazy Tasty."

One ad is set in a brightly colored suburban dining room that suggests a 1970s sitcom. Dad looks a little like Jim Carrey, which makes it hard not to think of The Truman Show. The adolescent son and daughter figures are drinking milk. The boy comments on the delicious mac-and-cheese dinner the family is enjoying. "That's because it's made with Spam," says Dad, who sort of leans across the table and delivers this insight with the conviction that suggests he is a man who might come unglued at any moment. He explains, through a clenched smile, how he made the dish sparkle by adding cubes of Spam. "Wow," says Mom, "I'd sure like some more—but there's none left!" Here, Dad seems to snap. His body stiffens, his brow furrows. He claps his hands and screams, "MORE SPAM!" A Spam van crashes through the wall, to the delight of everyone. "Mmm," the daughter says. "More Spam!" And then everyone laughs like a bunch of lunatics.

A second spot is set at a backyard barbecue. Not Necessarily Jim Carrey is on hand again, explaining to his neighbors, or whoever these people are, how he assembled the Spam-burgers they've been enjoying. Again there is a Spam shortage, and again his face briefly darkens before he summons another Spam van with an unhinged yell.

These ads are, frankly, unnerving. Which is probably why I like them. You might think it's a mistake to suggest that Spam's core constituency is suburban crazies who seem vaguely tortured behind their happy masks and might at any moment embark on some Cheeveresque journey across all the neighborhood's swimming pools in search of canned meat. Won't this make current Spam fans feel laughed at and betrayed?

I doubt it. I think it's actually fairly shrewd of Hormel to show a sense of humor about Spam—and the more twisted, the better. These ads never quite make fun of the, um, product. Besides, I would guess that even the most devoted addict recognizes that there's something sort of funny (peculiar and ha-ha) about it. The oddball humor of the ads makes Spam seem, if not exactly desirable, then at the very least harmless. In this case, that's very much a step in the right direction.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.