Muppet pig on trial for butchering SPAM name


NEW YORK -- The evil Muppet pig SPA'AM is making his debut this week, but instead of playing to a movie crowd he is performing in federal court where he is on trial for giving the luncheon meat SPAM a bad name.

Indeed, whether SPA'AM ever gets to ham it up in theaters is up to a tough critic, Kimba Wood, the federal judge who handed junk bond king Michael Milken a stiff 10-year prison term for securities fraud.

While SPA'AM may escape the pen, Wood can banish him from movie houses and prohibit Muppet maker Jim Henson Productions from using the character in lucrative merchandising deals.

The trial, which began Monday afternoon, stems from a trademark infringement lawsuit filed this summer against Henson by Hormel Foods Corp., which produces SPAM.

The lawsuit describes SPA'AM as a "grotesque and noxious appearing wild boar" that is "evil in porcine form." SPA'AM is featured in the movie, "Muppet Treasure Island," scheduled for February release. In the film, SPA'AM leads a savage tribe of boars that worship Miss Piggy and terrify the hero Kermit.

Hormel, which first used the SPAM trademark in 1937, alleges it will be irreparably harmed by publicity for the film and seeks to stop Henson from muddying its trademark.

While Hormel lawyers acknowledge that SPAM has been the butt of jokes for years -- the company's public relations director even testified there are SPAM sculpture contests and a singing group called the Spammettes -- they argue that the feral pig character has strayed too far.

They say the fanged puppet "falsely disparages" SPAM products and discourages consumers from buying the luncheon meat. They even brought in an expert witness, Dr. Laura Peracchio, a marketing professor from the Uiversity of Wisconsin who testified that SPA'AM looks "unhygienic."

When Wood questioned Peracchio about exactly what was unhygienic about the puppet, the professor had problems being specific and kept responding about his general appearance and that his feathered headdress seemed big and unruly.

"If you look at Farah Fawcett Majors, you might say that's big hair," Wood pointed out.

And if the professor had trouble explaining why SPA'AM seemed unhygienic, the lawyers could not even agree on how to pronounce the character's name.

When Wood asked them for clarification as the trial began Monday, none of the attorneys responded.

"Is anyone ready to say the word?" Wood finally said breaking the silence and forcing the solemn lawyers to try to imitate the way the pig puppet bellows out the pronounciation of his name drawing it out into two long syllables.

Hormel's public relations director Allan Krejci then took the stand and told the judge that today's children, who will be the next generation of SPAM-buyers, will reject the luncheon meat because they equate it with the fearsome boar.

"I do not consider that (character) to be a joke," he told the judge indignantly.

He also said the company earns a lot of money marketing the SPAM name and licensing products like T-shirts, watches and tennis balls. The products are even sold through the Internet, he said.

"So if Miss Piggy were Miss Spammy you'd still have a problem?" asked Wood.

"Yes Ma'am," he said.

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