Thursday, November 4, 2004
Soy Sauce, Popcorn, Lollipops—All Bear the Tabasco Label
By ROGER M. GRACE
In the beginning, there was only Tabasco Pepper Sauce, commonly referred to as “Tabasco Sauce,” sometimes merely “Tabasco.” That was the sole product marketed by Edmund McIlhenny starting in 1869—and then by E. McIlhenny’s Son, and then by the McIlhenny Company.
Nowadays, however, the McIlhenny Company makes four other pepper sauces, marketing them with “Tabasco” on the labels, as discussed here last week.
“Tabasco” is also used by McIlhenny as the brand name of two steak sauces, two Bloody Mary mixes, a soy sauce, a teriyaki sauce, Spanish olives, two types of pepper jellies, popcorn, cheese popcorn, four varieties of cheese crackers, two styles of chili, cinnamon candy, and a lollipop.
The Tabasco logo (the name in all capital letters in a diamond) also appears on products of various other manufacturers, such as Hormel’s Hot & Spicy Tabasco Flavored Chili.
This diversification is no doubt with the blessing of the company’s lawyers. “How can it be said, if ever it could be,” they are bound to bluster, “that ‘Tabasco Pepper Sauce’ is a mere generic description of a sauce made of Tabasco peppers when ‘Tabasco’ is a brand name used on products containing not a scintilla of any part of a Tabasco pepper?”
The company is, understandably, sensitive to the fact that generic names don’t merit trademark protection.
Applying the name of a product to other unlike products in an effort to “ungenericize” the word is nothing new. For example, in 1936, General Foods, the company that manufactured Jell-O, started putting out a chocolate pudding with the Jell-O label. The idea was to thwart commonplace usage of the trademark as a synonym for flavored gelatin.
Okay. Everybody knows of Jell-O-brand pudding. Yet, if the word “Jell-O” (or “Jello” or “jello”) is used, without more, the image that is instantly conjured up is that of the fruit-flavored gelatin.
Likewise, the word “Tabasco” as applied to a food product is bound to conjure up the image of a red pepper sauce in a bottle with a long skinny neck and a red cap, the original stuff once billed as “the sauce Mr. McIlhenny makes.”
If “Tabasco Pepper Sauce” is not today a generic description of a sauce made of Tabasco peppers, it’s because the public has largely lost an awareness that there is such a fruit as a “Tabasco” pepper. Indeed, the label on Tabasco Sauce makes no reference to that particular pepper as an ingredient; that label says: “distilled vinegar, red pepper, salt.”
At the turn of the last century, there was “McIlhenny’s Tabasco Sauce” and a couple of dozen other Tabasco sauces. However, in light of court decisions, no other company has marketed a sauce so designated for probably around 80 years. The word “Tabasco,” to a large extent, has lost any identity other than as McIlhenny’s brand name. Unlike Jell-O, it is not commonly used in a generic sense; that is, a bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce would not be referred to as “Tabasco.”
The correctness in 1918 of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision recognizing that the McIlhenny Company possessed a common law trademark in the work “Tabasco” is questionable. So is the astuteness of the Patent Office in 1931 in registering the previously-yanked trademark on “Tabasco.” But, with the passage of time and the public’s changed perception of the word “Tabasco,” the Tabasco trademark was probably not vulnerable to a challenge even before the diversification.
Note, however, that the Australian Supreme Court did hold five years ago that “Tabasco” is a generic term, hence not registrable as a trademark.
If “Tabasco” is no longer generic, what is there to prevent McIlhenny from switching to cheaper peppers, while living off the reputation Tabasco Sauce has gained through the decades based on its high quality ingredients?
McIlhenny has already tested out whether the public will balk at use of non-Tabascos, and apparently it won’t. There’s the new “Tabasco Garlic Sauce.” A year or so ago, I bought a bottle of it; it looked just like the Tabasco Sauce I’ve known for decades, and I assumed it was the same sauce, with garlic flavoring added. Wrong. It wasn’t as good, and it didn’t seem likely that was attributable to the addition of garlic.
The garlic sauce, I didn’t learn until later, is made only partially from peppers that are Tabascos. According to Tabasco.com, it contains “a hefty portion of smoother cayenne, a small amount of oak-aged Tabasco pepper, and mellow red jalapeno.”
The product is apparently drawing return customers, so I assume folks aren’t “burned” over the peppers switcharoo, perhaps presaging a Tabasco-less “Tabasco Pepper Sauce” some day.
Next week’s column will be the finale on Tabasco Sauce.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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