Wednesday, January 16, 2008

“Oink!” Miss Piggy’s Tragic Lament or: The Supreme Court, The Hapless Consumer, And The Day Big Business Spammed the Court System

I noted with cranky alarm this morning a report in the New York Times. It revealed that the Roberts U.S. Supreme Court has again affirmed its allegiance not to the U.S. Constitution or to the people of the United States, but to what you might call The U.S. Chamber of Big Business.

At issue was whether investors like you and me have a blanket right to sue corporations that commit securities fraud. Hell no, the Supreme Court in effect said, practically handing fraudsters a new constitutional privilege to rob you blind in certain circumstances

The majority reasoning on the court was a mind-boggling brain-busting tangle of what passes for reasoning. You can try to parse the Times' summary of their thinking, if you dare, here.

The sad truth is that the Roberts Supreme Court and Republican blowhards talk a good line about opposing “frivolous” litigation, but only when it’s litigation brought by a little guy or somebody representing a bunch of little guys suing big business.

You never hear a word – not from the Supreme Court, not from the Republican Party thugs who love to stick their hands in your pockets, not from the Bush White House, not from the corporate crybabies in who don’t like getting punished for their sometimes multi-billion dollar ripoffs – when the big guys come down like a ton of bricks over some relatively little guy for some trivial transgression.

Case in point: Hormel vs.
Miss Piggy’s daddy

My favorite example goes back to 1995 and 1996 when the Hormel Corporation, makers of Spam, came down like the proverbial ton of bricks on the late Jim Henson, the puppeteer who created The Muppets.

Henson was making another Muppets movie, and in addition to all the usual suspects like Miss Piggy and Kermit, he had plans to very briefly introduce a character named Spa’am, a wild boar puppet. Guess what?

Hormel squeals like
a stuck you-know-what

Hormel Foods Corporation, the makers of Spam, sued The Muppets seeking an injunction to prevent the making of the movie with any character named Spa’am. Fortunately, Hormel sued in the Southern District of New York – Manhattan is what normal people call the area – which as everyone knows, is a roiling nest of reprobate liberals like The New York Crank. And so sweet reason prevailed.

Faced with a phalanx of corporate litigators grown irate over a pig puppet, the normally august District Court for the Southern District was forced to climb down into the sandbox with those runny-nosed kids from Hormel and make some observations.

Dr. Laura A. Peracchio, an expert in consumer behavior, states in her report that Spa'am is unappealing and will lead to negative associations on the part of consumers because he has small eyes, protruding teeth, warts, a skull on his headdress, is generally untidy, and speaks in a deep voice with poor grammar and diction. I am, however, persuaded by the report and testimony of Anne Devereaux Jordan, an expert in children's literature, who notes that children (and adults) often have positive associations with characters that may not appear classically handsome. Among other examples, Ms. Jordan points to "Pumbaa," the good-natured warthog in Walt Disney's film The Lion King, and "Splinter," the aging rat who acts as teacher and father-figure to the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
When all was said and done, the District Court for the Southern District essentially told Hormel to go take a hike. Whereupon, summoning all its mighty financial muscle and its powerful litigators, Hormel drove Henson’s costs up further in this tempest over a piggy puppet and appealed the decision.

Could the distinguished judges
manage to keep a straight face?

I would love to say the appeals court was not amused, but judging from the justices' written decision, the Court of Appeals was very amused. I quote from their decision, which wiped up the floor with Hormel. You can find the full text here, but the judicial writing is so delicious – and certainly tastier than a plate of Spam – that I feel I absolutely must quote parts of it to you.
The film will use some of Henson's most familiar characters, including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and [**3] Fozzie Bear. A number of additional characters have been created [*501] for this production, among whom is Spa'am, the subject of this litigation. The similarity between the name "Spa'am" and Hormel's mark is not accidental. In Henson's film, Spa'am is the high priest of a tribe of wild boars that worships Miss Piggy as its Queen Sha Ka La Ka La. Although the name "Spa'am" is mentioned only once in the entire movie, Henson hopes to poke a little fun at Hormel's famous luncheon meat by associating its processed, gelatinous block with a humorously wild beast. However, the executives at Hormel are not amused. They worry that sales of SPAM will drop off if it is linked with "evil in porcine form."... … Hormel also expresses concern that even comic association with an unclean "grotesque" boar will call into question the purity and high quality of its meat product. But the district court found no evidence that Spa'am was unhygienic. At worst, he might be described as "untidy." Id. at *6. Moreover, by now Hormel should be inured to any such ridicule. Although SPAM is in fact made from pork shoulder and ham meat, and the name itself supposedly is a portmanteau word for spiced ham, countless jokes have played off the public's unfounded suspicion that SPAM is a product of less than savory ingredients. For example, in one episode of the television cartoon Duckman, Duckman is shown discovering "the secret ingredient to SPAM" as he looks on at "Murray's Incontinent Camel Farm." In a recent newspaper column it was noted that "In one little [**5] can, Spam contains the five major food groups: Snouts. Ears. Feet. Tails. Brains."
Before it was through, the appeals court had gotten into not only pronunciation of the Hormel Spam one syllable brand name and the boar puppet’s two-syllable name, but also into logotypes, consumer perceptions, “expert” testimony, and an older case pitting the movie character King Kong against the computer game Donkey Kong. In the end, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s decision and Hormel was again told to go take a hike. And you thought law was boring?

Hormel ends up with
pork fat on its face

Of course, ultimately the joke on Hormel was even bigger than anyone might have guessed at the time. Within a few years, as America became wired to the Internet, "spam" took on a whole new meaning – a definition of the crap you don’t want that shows up in your e-mailbox.

Also, thanks to the Internet, there’s Wikipedia. So now you and the entire world can go here and discover that:
"A 56 gram (approximately 2 ounce) serving of original Spam provides 7 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbohydrates, 15 grams of fat (23% US Daily Value) including 6 grams of saturated fat (28% US Daily Value), and over 170 calories. A serving contains nearly a third of the recommended daily intake of sodium (salt). Spam provides very little in terms of vitamins and minerals (0% vitamin A, 1% vitamin C, 1% calcium, 3% iron). It has been listed as a food that is a poor choice for weight loss (or weight gain) and optimum health and as a food that "is high in saturated fat and sodium".
At last, I come to
the cranky point

So what’s all this have to do with the Supreme Court’s decision favoring the right of big business to hoodwink the public and deprive us of our investment dollars?

Only this cranky citing of the ancient cliché that, “what goes around comes around.” One of these days, the Supreme Court’s latest pro-thug decision will come around to haunt not only the thugs in many corporate headquarters, but the clowns on the court who are joyfully wallowing in their distortion of the Constituion, common law and plain decency.

When that happens, remember that you heard it cranked about here first.

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