CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1997 // January 3 //
Jacking in from the "Make Mine Spam Lite" port:
Washington -- This is a story of abuse in cyberspace. It's an ugly, twisted, tortured tale, but one that needs to be told. It is the story of the original, undisputed Spam King -- Hormel Foods, the makers of Spam.
The brand identity of any product is worth its weight in gold and companies go hammer and tongs to protect those trademarks. Spam, one of Hormel's best known products, has endured pot-shots for decades, according to Mary Harris, the company's main "Spam spokeswoman." But somewhere along the line, the company lost control of "spam" as it went spinning out of control, being appropriated into the lexicon of cyberspace as a pejorative for the act of flooding a newsgroup or Internet Service Provider with unwanted electronic mail.
"Spamming" as this Email flooding is popularly known, takes its name from a Monty Python sketch where all the menu items at a particular cafe come with Spam. A quick search of the WEB using the Alta Vista search engine returned more than 20,000 hits for the keyword "spam."
All that ill-will being associated with Hormel's top gun product doesn't exactly sit well with the corporate suits, Harris says. Like the use of the word "band-aid" when referring to a "plastic strip first aid device" or "xerox" to mean "a photocopy" using "spam" in cyberspace is just a fact of life for Hormel. "Unfortunately, there is so little we can do about it," Harris says, noting that the company would have to "police the entire Internet and how do you do that?"
But it's not only the use of "spam" as a verb that tweaks Hormel, there are plenty of web sites that refer to Spam in other ways. "Most of it is plain, unadulterated garbage," Harris says. For example, there is "spam hiku." (Honest, I'm not making this up.)
Here are a couple "spam hiku" samples found, unattributed, on a web site:
Soft, pink, newborn joy,
glistening within steel womb.
What? No placenta? and
The tortured shape of this "food":
A small pink coffin
While Hormel isn't exactly thrilled with Spam parodies, it apparently is only tweaked when those parodies are unofficial. Take the "Spamettes" for example. This is company sponsored group that "takes popular songs and turns them into 'spam songs,'" according to Harris. The Spamettes are a big attraction during the company's annual "Spam Jam" which takes place on the fourth of July. (I swear, this is the truth.)
Then there is "Spam Man" the product's official mascot that is given to showing up at promotional events. Spam even has its own in-house lawyer, Kevin Jones. I tried to reach Jones, but he didn't return my phone calls.
There also is a Spam gift catalog, "a whole universe of Spam," Harris said. There's a "whimsical Spam silk neck tie" which is "garnished with nostalgic Spam luncheon meat graphics, this tie inspires a look of unmistakable good taste" for only $32.50. Or there's the Spam Can Boxer shorts, "one of the most popular products!" Harris says. The catalog copy says these are the "best way we can think of to fill your drawers full of delicious Spam luncheon meat," and they'll set you back only $18.50. Why Leno or Letterman haven't discovered this treasure trove of joke material is beyond me.
Perhaps Hormel is bent that one of its best known products is the butt of so much cyber-abuse because there's no real "butt" in Spam. The product is all pork shoulder, ham, water, sugar and sodium nitrate "as a preservative," Harris says. Which means that can of spam in your pantry will be good until sometime well into the next millennium.
While no one knows how much Spam is produced in cyberspace, in "meatspace" some 110 million cans of Spam are produced per year, according to Hormel. An additional 10 million can are sold overseas. Some 435 cans are consumed per minute in the U.S.
Josh Quittner of the Netly News fired the first known shot in the domain name wars in a story he wrote for Wired magazine. That article chronicled how he registered "mcdonalds.com" and created the "ronald.mcdonald" Email ID. Quittner, using negotiating skills that qualify him for the next Commissioner of Baseball, got the McDonalds corporation to perform public service for one of New York's elementary schools in exchange for the rights to mcdonalds.com domain name.
Since Quittner's stellar article, a virtual trademark war has been fought in cyberspace. Some companies threaten legal action, choosing a kind of "no negotiations with terrorists" policy, while others choose the path of least resistance: they open up the corporate coffers and pony up a fat check.
Hormel itself has "bought back several domain names," says Harris, but she declined to give specifics. Hormel does own the "spam.com" domain, though it sits idle. A call the administrative contact for the domain was not returned, though his Email address is listed with MCI Mail, as is the domain's technical contact.
This isn't to say that Hormel takes the misappropriation of its Spam trademark lying down. The company took the Muppets to court last year when they found out that a new character, a pig named "Spa'am" was to be introduced in the Muppet movie "Treasure Island." A judge in 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court ruling which basically told Hormel to "lighten up." The court said the Muppet character's name "is simply another in a long line of Muppet lampoons" and would be seen as "the joke it was intended to be."
Although Harris says the company has "no official policy" on the cyber-abuse of their product, the company is at least waging a kind of quiet war to protect its trademark at the source: InterNIC, the central domain name registry.
A bit of Web trolling discovered that Hormel is keeping a close eye on InterNIC. From a site simply called "SPAM!" comes this notice: "SPAM! is now at a new URL due to pending negotiations with Hormel. They have forced a hold on the domain name spam.net through InterNIC.
In the broader net trademark wars, Harris says the company sends out letters telling the offenders they "object to the improper use of our trademark."
Of course, if things get ugly, Hormel can always call on Quittner to mediate the dispute. They could cough a fat arbitration fee and give him a lifetime supply of Spam.
No need to thank me, Josh. Just send me a case every Christmas.