Even as a vegetarian adult, two hotdog commercial jingles still run through my head, proving how effective they were. The songs ran during ads for Armour Hotdogs and Oscar Mayer Hotdogs. While both songs were highly catchy and memorable, the messages of the songs could not be more different, as each song seems to fundamentally define the culture of its company.
Let’s begin with Armor Hotdogs.
As most North Americans growing up in the 70s can tell you, the lyrics went as follows:
Hot dogs, Armour Hot Dogs,
All kinds of kids love Armour Hot Dogs:
Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks
Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with Chicken Pox
Love hot dogs, Armour Hot Dogs -
The dogs kids love to bite.
This is a song that could not be aired in the 21st century, and for good reason. It harkens back to a naive time before political correctness when nobody producing entertainment for the masses would have to think about the points of view of individual members of the masses. In fact, if you look up the Armour Hot Dog song now, many web sites have cleaned it up, replacing “tough” and “sissy” with “big” and “little.” But the original version is what is stuck in my head and, I assume, the heads of millions of other consumers.
Now, when I brought up the offensiveness of adults calling kids fat, and sissies, or joyfully singing about kids with diseases, several of my friends responded that at least they weren’t afraid to sing about “all kinds of kids” back then. But look at the panoply of “all kinds” that exists in the 1970s American packaged meat world:
- Kids who are athletic
- Kids with diseases
That’s basically it. And, by the way, if you remember the commercial, they were all White. Those categories of kids were imposed on us back then, and if you found yourself assigned to the first or fourth group, it was a one way ticket to relentless teasing and getting beaten up after school.
Now, let’s look at Oscar Mayer Hotdogs.
Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener,
That is what I’d truly like to be-ee-ee.
‘Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener,
Everyone would be in love with me.
While the Armour song divides people into stereotypical categories, the Oscar Myer song unites all people. The commercials showed groups of children marching down the street, inviting, or compelling, onlookers to join in on their movement. “We are all one!” was the message. OK, there may have been a creepy subtext of conformity, and it may be a bit over the top that the characters so identified with the product that they actually wanted to be a hotdog, but the song is also about universal desires to be loved and to belong.
(By the way, a big shout out goes to the 1960s for the correct use of the word “were”.)
So, what do these two songs say about the companies they promoted?
First, let’s take a hard look at Armour:
Armour and Company was an old slaughterhouse & meatpacking company in Chicago. It was notorious for paying low wages & suppressing workers’ efforts to unionize. It sold rotten meat to the US Army in the Spanish-American war, poisoning thousands of soldiers. Later, the Hot Dog division was sold to Smithfield Foods, which is known for storing millions of gallons of untreated fecal matter in lagoons which then drain into rivers in North Carolina. Workers and nearby residents have complained about health problems and an overwhelming stench of hog feces. The company has paid millions of dollars in fines for violating the Clean Water Act. In 2009, Smithfield was accused of being the source of the Swine Flu epidemic. In 2010, an undercover investigation of a Smithfield pig farm found, “unacceptable and systemic abuses” of animals too horrific for me to write about here. The company was embroiled in a 15-year battle with its workers to stop them from organizing a union and paid a $900,000 penalty for illegal merger activity during its takeover of a pork company. On the philanthropic side, Smithfield sponsors a NASCAR driver, and gives money to charities.
Union-busting, poisoning the air & water, cruelty to animals… about what you’d expect from a company that callously sang about “fat kids,” “sissy kids,” and kids suffering from illnesses. In the early days of fighting their own workers, Armour brought in African American workers to break the picket lines of their White employees, thus pitting one group of dependent workers against another. Is it any wonder that they divided kids into separate groups based on superficial differences?
Now, let’s take a look at the company promoting universal love, Oscar Mayer:
Oscar Mayer is also from Chicago, also from the 19th century. Concerned with producing a safe and high-quality product, in 1906, the company was the first ever to voluntarily join the American meat inspection program. Oscar Mayer, now owned by Kraft Foods, is famous for its Weinermobile, which brings joy and confusion to people of all faiths throughout the land. I couldn’t find much controversy associated with the lovable Oscar Mayer company, but I did find a small footnote to history: Union Carbide once tried to sue Oscar Mayer over some taxes involved with sausage casings. Justice was on the side of Oscar Mayer. Union Carbide, if you’ll remember, was the company that murdered thousands of people in Bhopal India with a toxic gas release, after having killed hundreds of its own workers in a silica mine and contaminating Australia with dioxin.
This year, Oscar Mayer gave away 30,000 packages of free bacon to the people of Chicago. The Oscar & Elsa Mayer Foundation gives grants to to organizations helping at-risk children. Why? Perhaps, because they recognize that all any child really wants is for everyone to “be in love with me.”