Saturday, November 15, 2008

Business Section Falls For "Spam" Hoax

The front page of today's business section carries a story touting the news that spam sales are up -- referencing, yet again, the affordable food product that has become emblematic of recessions and depressions.

Sound familiar? Maybe that's because less than six months ago, the entire American news media (except the Times) printed the exact same story, after being fed the familiar angle by publicists for Hormel, who make the canned meat product. Spam has long been touted (mostly by its manufacturer) as a cheap meat alternative for consumers facing difficult times.

Today's Andrew Martin feature was the ultimate example of unsubstantiated and unrestrained Spam promotion. Among the absurd speculation allowed into print about Spam's prospects: "We'll probably see Spam lines instead of bread lines," said Dan Bartel, business agent for the union local serving Hormel -- hardly an objective analyst of Spam sales. And do Times editors actually think that's anything but ridiculous hype?

The Spam story (nearly identical to today's Times account) appeared in so many newspapers last spring that Times "Freakonomics" blogger Stephen J. Dubner analyzed the phenomenon in a post last June. Dubner looked carefully at the coverage last spring and concluded: "Sometimes a story is so irresistible that the media can’t stay away from it, even if it’s not much of a story."

Dubner went on to note that in fact, the price of Spam had risen beyond the rate of inflation, making it not nearly the bargain Hormel claimed it was. Dubner suggested that the media campaign to promote the specious notion of Spam's resurgence may have cost the company more than it gained from increased spam sales:

So we are asked to believe that a) more people are buying Spam because, according to Hormel, people are eating at home more to save money and that; b) they are turning to Spam because it is a good deal (even though, as pointed out above, its price has risen just as much as other foods). In other words, we’re being asked to believe that we are in a recession and that Spam has come to the rescue.

Whereas, in fact, the 10 percent increase in Spam may well be the result of nothing more than an ad campaign — which, considering that advertising ROI can be extremely weak, may mean that Hormel ends up having lost money on each additional can of Spam it sold.

The good news, however, is that seemingly every media outlet in America carried a story about the spike in Spam sales, which is pretty fantastic free advertising. So even if Hormel didn’t really hit a home run last quarter, maybe they will this quarter. Better yet, maybe that was Hormel’s strategy all along?

Dubner's intelligent analysis appears to have gone unheeded by Times business section editors, who allowed yet another Spam hoax to be perpetrated on its readers in the name of news.

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