June 3 2008 07:58 PM

The bright, shiny, gelatinous side of the recession


What's the worst thing about the suckiness of the economy? More Spam. I don't mean the stuff you filter out of your inbox; I mean actual Spam, the stuff Monty Python sings about: the slimy pink meat in a can, invented as a practical joke by scientists in white lab coats in 1937. It's flying off the shelves again.

According to The Associated Press, executives at Hormel Foods Corporation, the massive Minnesota-based entity responsible for Spam, attribute increased Spam sales to people saving money by skipping restaurant meals and eating more at home.

On May 22, Hormel announced increased second-quarter sales of its repugnant pig preserves, helping push up its profits 14 percent. Growing Spam consumption has helped lift Hormel to $1.59 billion in sales for the quarter.

Spam is reaching young and old, rich and poor, said Hormel's Swen Neufeldt. “We have significantly increased our household penetration,” he said. “I think it's a lot of folks that are coming into the brand perhaps for the first time and coming back to the brand.” Wow, what insight.

Sure, Spam has old and new fans: some ironic, some nostalgic, some indiscriminate. There are also those who consider Spam “emergency food,” appropriate for when you've run out of real food or for stocking a bomb shelter.

And there are those who detest and deride Spam (Spam is an acronym, it is claimed, for “Something Posing As Meat” or “Spare Parts Animal Meat”). I am among these Spam detractors. A long-time vegetarian who favors healthy food choices, I hereby acknowledge my anti-Spam bias.

Spam is made of the shoulders and legs of dead pigs, ground up and mixed together with salt, sugar, water and sodium nitrite. It's packed in a gelatinous potato-starch goo, baked and sealed in cans. Because it's highly processed, it's cheap and has an unlimited shelf life, hence its use as a protein source for soldiers during World War II (soldiers called it “ham that didn't pass its physical”).

Korea, Guam and other territories that got Spammed due to American interventionism have developed a taste for the mutant pork cube, treating it as a sort of Western delicacy, stir-frying it, stuffing it in sushi or making it a staple ingredient of “army-base stew.” It's allegedly now given as a gift more often than chocolates in South Korea. Spam has become an international disaster, contributing to the world's increasingly debased cuisine and deteriorating health due to its high saturated fat and sodium content.

Leading American consumers back down this dark path is Hormel's first national advertising campaign for the brand in several years. In addition to increased poverty, Hormel credits the recent sales growth to the new campaign, along with new products like individually packaged “Spam Singles” slices.

Hormel began the new campaign, including print and television ads, in January. Neufeldt said the campaign was planned in advance and wasn't tied to a perceived weakness in the economy. Good timing, Swen.

The campaign was created by the large firm BBDO for an undisclosed amount of money—I would guess around $5 million to $10 million—and aims for a mass target. They've tried to capitalize on Spam's funniness by creating animated TV spots, radio jingles, a dashboard widget, games, a museum, a fan club and a wacky website that lets you know they get the joke. The new tagline is “Crazy tasty!”

In the new TV ads, anonymous everyman stick figures abandon the drudgery of their jobs as symbols of life's hazards on traffic signs and come to life to struggle for Spam on the madcap, violent streets of their brightly colored cartoon town. They are a plea to the average working guy to think two-dimensionally and persuade his wife to serve him up a Spamburger when he gets home—or maybe they're a plea to the homemaker-on-a-budget who, for $2.62, can buy a 12-ounce can of Spam to slice, fry up and slap on Wonder Bread to pass off as a “crazy tasty” dinner for her whole family.

The new radio-friendly Spam songs are an attempt to co-opt some of the nerd-cool Spam cultural capital that derives from its Monty Python/computer lingo heritage (Spam is so uncool that it's cool enough to ironically celebrate and maybe now even eat). There's a deep-voiced Johnny Cash send-up: “You can leave me sittin' in a world of hurt / But Pam don't take my Spam”; a fake-live rockin' Van Halenesque stadium anthem: “The flames are getting' higher and higher / For that tasty meat / I'm gonna fry it up, Spam Spam Spam”; and an Old Skool Beastie Boys-style Spam rap: “They call it crazy tasty cause it's hella delicious / If you step into my Spam I don't get mad, I get vicious.”

But the center of the website is the Big Book of Spam. Click on a question and the animated pages of a dusty tome flip open and an ironically authoritative male voice-of-the-book bellows out a definitive answer from inside an echo chamber filled with otherworldly Theremin bleeps: Q: What is sodium nitrite? A: “A tiny amount of sodium nitrite is used…. Without it, all pork items would turn gray… It should really be renamed ‘pinkification!!!'”

But here's what the Big Book of Spam won't tell you, and what 10 million or so bucks of turd-polishing won't buy you: Sodium nitrite is a chemical preservative used to manufacture dyes and rubber, as a laboratory corrosion inhibitor, in metal coatings, and in human and veterinary medicine as an intestinal relaxant or a laxative, and as an antidote for cyanide poisoning. According to the FDA and studies in the International Journal of Cancer and WebMB Medical News, various dangers of “pinkification” include potential migraines, colon cancer and lung disease.

Oh, and one more thing: Spam is made out of slaughtered creatures as intelligent and loving as your pet—and water, sugar, salt, potato starch and—did I mention sodium nitrite? Yeah, crazy tasty!     

Write to dak@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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