Claim: A cannery stuck with unmarketable pale salmon turned this handicap around by boldly labeling their product as "Guaranteed not to turn pink in the can!"
Origins: It's a great marketing tale of transforming the insurmountable disadvantage into the overpowering advantage, but that's likely all it is, a tale.
Though this story has been told in many different ways at different times (including as a joke in a 1945 book), no one has yet to come up with the name of the cannery, the identity of the brilliant advertising man, or anything else that would be checkable. Indeed, the same story has been told of tuna versus tuna, tuna versus salmon, and salmon versus salmon. (There's even a lobster version out there.) With so many forms in circulation, there's no way even of determining which version of this fish story is the most common. About the one thing you can count on is this always supposedly happened to some unnamed American company back around the turn of the century.
Let's forget about the lobsters and just concentrate on the fish. (Yeah, I know: there goes the menu. Bear with me.) First up in the white salmon versus pink salmon category is my all-time favorite:
There are two kinds of Alaska salmon: white and pink. The white was advertised as "guaranteed not to turn pink in the can!" Not to be outdone, the pink-salmon folks countered: "Guaranteed: No bleach used in processing!"
Notice the beautiful tellability of this tale — it's a fine example of someone fighting fire with fire. As such, we end up cheering for both sides while at the same time admiring the smarts of these oldtime hucksters. (If you think misleading marketing tactics were something that only happened back in the pre-dawn of time and certainly wouldn't be attempted nowadays, well, it wasn't that many years ago that I saw boxes of cereal boldly labeled "Fat Free!")
Here's how another telling attached a different moral to it:
[Ben Shaul, 1994]
Almost 100 years ago, Americans became accustomed to tins of pink salmon, the only salmon on the market. But when another salmon strain, one with white flesh, appeared in the shops, consumers rejected it. The canneries started a print-media campaign for the new product with one large statement: "This salmon doesn't turn pink in the can!" For half a century, American consumers really believed that other brands were prone to turn pink in the can.
The way he tells it, this isn't so much a tale of successful hucksterism as it is a commentary on the gullibility of the average Joe. Did "American consumers" (which implies all of them) really believe this? If so, what happened a half century later to wise up the population?
So much for salmon versus salmon; now we go on to salmon versus tuna:
I heard one of my favorite anecdotes about food — no doubt apocryphal — many years ago when I came to this country. The story was set around the turn of the century, when the producers of canned tuna and the producers of canned salmon were supposed to have been engaged in a great merchandising battle. At the time canned salmon was far outselling canned tuna.
Naturally, tuna processors were dismayed. So they came up with a new marketing ploy, a slogan that proclaimed, "Our product is guaranteed not to turn red in the can."
Finally, here are some tuna versus tuna versions ... and even differing versions of the same tale from the same source:
While much is written about the tuna war raging between our fishermen and the Spaniards, little is said about the actual quality of the tuna they catch. The appetite for tuna depends largely upon its colour. The meat with a roseate hue is most popular for salads and sandwiches. But it is not always this colour, and a large tuna business in America found itself landed with a huge catch of white tuna.
Try as they might, they could not shift this pale-looking fish and, in desperation, consulted an advertising man with a reputation for being able to sell anything.
They waited for months for him to come up with an advertising idea and, just as they were about to give him up, the company chairman received a telephone call from him.
'Write down this slogan,' he said. 'And print it prominently on every can of your white tuna. The tuna that does not turn pink in the can.' It was a fantastic commercial success.
Now here's how the same writer told it a year earlier:
These events remind me of the American food company that found itself with a huge catch of white tuna which it could not sell because the public believed that tuna was better and fresher if it was pink.
In desperation, the company asked one of America's best advertising men to devise a slogan that would help to shift the tuna.
Months went by and nothing came up. Eventually the advertising man was cornered by an executive who demanded some immediate saleable words. After a few moments' thought, he wrote some words on a slip of paper. "Put that on every can of your tuna," he said. The slogan read: "The tuna that does not turn pink in the can." It sold millions.
how the story subtly shifted even over the span of just one year. In the earlier version, the white tuna doesn't sell because pink was
believed better and fresher; in the latter, pink is said to be more popular for sandwiches and salads, with the implication that this is because pink is a more appetizing color. Also, in the earlier version the harried ad man is cornered by the executive and, under pressure, scribbles the "guaranteed not to ..." line. Yet only a year later that part has changed — after getting his assignment a month earlier, the ad man calls up the company and announces his great idea. No longer is this a story of greatness under pressure; now it's bent to fit a different moral.
In other words, this story gets fine tuna'd depending on who's telling it and why.
Barbara "salmon chanted evening" Mikkelson
Sightings: During an episode of television's The West Wing ("Indians in the Lobby; original air date 21 November 2001), political operative Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver) explains that public reaction to negative information can be swayed by its presentation and demonstrates his point by regaling White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) with a story about P.T. Barnum's unloading a batch of unmarketable white salmon by advertising it as "guaranteed not go turn pink in the can."
Last updated: 8 May 2011
Ben Shaul, D'Vora. "Deceptive Advertising."
The Jerusalem Post. 5 December 1994 (p. 7).
Franey, Pierre. "60-Minute Gourmet."
The New York Times. 15 July 1987 (p. C3).
Mallach, Efrem. "Avoid Swallowing Vendor Solutions Hook, Line and Sinker."
Computerworld. 16 June 1986 (p. 17).
Shulman, Milton. "Winning By a Smile?"
[London] Evening Standard. 19 August 1994 (p. 30).
Shulman, Milton. "Is an Old Man as Young as the Woman He Feels?"
[London] Evening Standard. 17 September 1993 (p. 44).
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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