AS THIS COLUMN'S readers are well aware, there are plenty of weird products out there -- the bizarre beverages, the mystery meats, the gadgets that serve as solutions to problems most of us will never encounter. But there are also lots of products that are perfectly normal in every respect but one: They're saddled with inexplicable names -- names that make so little sense, it's hard to fathom what the manufacturer was thinking. I would certainly have enjoyed, for example, being a fly on the wall during the product-development meetings that resulted in Shnookums & Meat meatless pasta.
In case you've never heard of Shnookums (a cat) or Meat (a dog), they're a pair of animated cartoon characters. I'd never heard of them myself until my pen-pal Amanda recently sent me two cans of Franco-American pasta named after them and bearing their licensed likenesses. One of the cans included meatballs but the other was just pasta and sauce, presenting an interesting conflict between the latter variety's name and its contents -- it's called "Shnookums & Meat," but there's no meat in the product. Brilliant, right?
Franco-American chose to resolve the problem with a pair of fine-print disclaimers on the package label, the more amusing of which reads, "Meat is a character developed by Buena Vista Television. THERE IS NO MEAT IN THIS PRODUCT." It's not clear whether this is meant to mollify vegetarians or serve as full disclosure to carnivores, but either way the real question is why such an incongruously named grocery item exists in the first place. Why not just market the meatball-inclusive variety and leave it at that?
"We invented the canned children's pasta category," explained Franco-American spokesman Kevin Lowery when I put the question to him. "The top-selling product in that category is Spaghetti-Os, and the top-selling variety of that product is the plain, meatless variety." So when the Shnookums & Meat line was launched in 1995, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that there would be a meatless version, despite the potential confusion involving the name.
Shnookums and Meat's TV show was recently cancelled, and I don't think the little pasta shapes look much like the cartoon characters, but Lowery maintained that the product has performed well and that there has been no significant negative consumer feedback about the name. Indeed, when I raised the name issue with a phone rep on the company's toll-free customer-service hotline, she said she was unaware of any similar complaints (or of the product itself, for that matter) and implied that I was making a bit of a fuss about nothing. Okay, so maybe I'm being picky. Next time I call, however, perhaps I'll also mention that it seems a bit odd to market a children's product whose name conveniently abbreviates to "S&M." (Campbell Soup Company, Campbell's Place, Camden, NJ 08103)
Inconspicuous Consumption is an occasional feature which examines a variety of products and services--some unusual, many exceedingly ordinary, but all worthy of close inspection.Inconspicuous Consumption, the book, is just out from Crown.