London in late December 1942 wasn’t a very merry place. The blitz had dragged into its second year, damaging or destroying nearly a million buildings. Londoners slept in the Underground each night. Over 150,000 families had no water, gas or electricity. Amid the desultory landscape, CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow began his Christmas broadcast for CBS radio listeners in America.
“This is London,” Murrow intoned. “Although the Christmas table will not be lavish, there will be Spam luncheon meat for everyone.”
That the world’s most influential journalist found encouragement in a 12-ounce can of vacuum-sealed pork shoulder says much about the times. It also says a lot about the staying power of a brand.
Fickle foodies and city snoots might be unaware of the fact, but Spam—which turned 75 years old in 2012—remains one of the most popular and enduring packaged foods in the world. The publicity folks at Hormel report that Spam is for sale on every continent except Antarctica and sits on 99 percent of grocery shelves in America. Every year, citizens of the world buy 122 million cans of Spam and eat them at a rate of three every second.
Given that sort of popularity, it might seem like advertising Spam would be a breeze. But as the ads here show, not quite.
Spam isn’t just a unique food (for the record, the ingredients are pork, water, salt, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate)—it’s one with a unique marketing challenge. When the U.S. government contracted with Hormel during World War II to send 150 million pounds of Spam overseas as K-rations and U.K. relief packages, even initial fans of “miracle meat” got sick of it fast. (Monty Python’s witheringly hilarious Spam routine from 1970 was rooted in this very thing.) So when Hormel ramped up its postwar advertising, it had to overcome Spam fatigue.
How? As this 1959 ad from Reader’s Digest shows, the trick was distancing Spam from its meat-in-a-can image and casting it as dinner. “You can’t go wrong with a picture of the food and an idea of what you can do with it,” observed Bill Winchester, chief creative officer of Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, which has worked with leading packaged-food brands.
Indeed, Winchester added, “that’s what they were doing then, and it’s what they’re doing now.” He’s referring to this 2014 Spam ad, which seems to be taking its creative cues from decades past by presenting Spam as an appealing entrée (and consigning the can to a lower corner of the ad).
It’s also no accident that these dishes have a decidedly Far Eastern tint. Then and now, Spam easily swapped places with salted pork used in stir fry. And in much of Southeast Asia, Spam gift packs are reportedly popular wedding gifts. Look it up.
1. The chopsticks and square plate continue the Spam marketing tradition of nodding to Asia. Also, “this ad’s colors, yellow and blue, are Spam colors,” Winchester added. “So they pulled that brand attribute in.”
2. In 1950s America, a stir fry was probably a bit exotic for the home kitchen. But today, as Winchester points out, an ethnically diverse consuming population would take to this dish called Spam Fried Nice! (yes, that’s the name) naturally.
3. This is Sir Can-A-Lot. He appeared in 2012 as part of Spam’s 75th anniversary. According to the company website, his “crusade [is] to rescue the world from routine meals.”