At Hormel corporate headquarters in Austin, Minn., they call it “unwanted e-mail,” never spam. It’s been a sore subject ever since the mid-’90s, when chat-room users first flooded computer screens with the word “spam” to blot out the comments of users they didn’t like. Wikipedia gives the example of Star Wars fans “spamming” Star Trek chat rooms. The word was chosen because of the famous Monty Python sketch in which every item on a restaurant’s menu includes Spam, Hormel’s canned, spiced lunchmeat. The skit was a back-handed compliment, a tribute to Spam’s success at monopolizing the British diet.
By the late ’90s, spam had migrated from Internet chat rooms to in-boxes as a term of art for junk e-mail, becoming synonymous with erectile dysfunction ads and entreaties from fake Nigerian princes, and presenting Hormel with the greatest marketing challenge in its 75-year history. “We had something negative that was trading on our brand equity, on our name,” says Dan Goldman, Hormel’s grocery products manager. “You have to protect what’s yours.”