Perspective: Can Do

Eating canned pasta goes back nearly a century. But selling it? That’s changed completely in half the time

Humans evolve. Brands evolve. Even canned spaghetti evolves.

     Back in 1955, Franco-American was riding high with the postwar wonder food shown at right, introduced that same year. (Its “New” claim was debatable since the French Army first crammed spaghetti into cans back in 1917.) By 1965, however, sales had slowed. When the brass at Franco-American’s parent company Campbell’s ordered an overhaul, the R&D guys cooked up a miracle: SpaghettiOs. It kept the 1950s convenience factor, but this time the product stayed on the spoon. Kids ate it up. Campbell’s retired the Franco-American brand in 2004, but SpaghettiOs endured.

It still sells 150 million cans a year.

     The product’s physical transformation has been so dramatic that it nearly eclipses the other change evident in these ads: the marketing. In 1955, wholesomeness made the sale; by 2011, nutrition was what mattered.

     “Fifty years ago, mothers couldn’t serve spaghetti out of a can—it would make them the worst mothers in the world!” says Richard George, Ph.D., who teaches food marketing at the Haub School of Business. But the ad’s copy about “real hearty eating” and its domestic tabletop presentation “gave them permission to do it.”

     Today’s ad—still about convenience and still aimed at mom—bestows a similar kind of permission, but now the product is okay to serve because it won’t make Junior fat. “It’s no longer a question of guilt assuasion,” George says. “It’s about health—a full serving of vegetables.”

     From June Cleaver to Soccer Mom. Funny thing is, the stuff is still basically what the French Army served troops in 1917.