If you look at the packaging of Hawaiian Snacks potato chips, which come in flavors like Sweet Maui Onion and Luau BBQ and which feature images of hula dancers and fiery volcanoes, you would probably think, "I guess these chips have something to do with the Pacific archipelago that makes up the 50th state." You might even assume, as Michael Maeda of Honolulu and Iliana Sanchez of Los Angeles, that these potato chips were made in Hawaii, or perhaps feature ingredients from Hawaii.
Sorry but… they don't. Hawaiian Snacks, like all the other products produced by the Pinnacle Foods subsidiary Tim’s Cascade Snacks, are made in a factory located at at 1150 Industry Drive North in Algona, Washington—just about 2,670 miles away from Honolulu.
When Maeda and Sanchez figured this out (to be fair, the factory location is noted in fine print at the bottom of the back of the bag) they weren't just annoyed at the peculiar branding choices, they were angry about being misled—angry enough to sue, as first reported by The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Earlier this week, Maeda and Sanchez were named as the first two plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Pinnacle Foods Inc. seeking an injunction as well as monetary damages for the "false and deceptive marketing and sale of the Defendant’s Hawaiian brand snacks."
The suit alleges that, “Through false and deceptive labeling, packaging, and advertising, Pinnacle intentionally misled consumers into believing that Hawaiian Snacks are made in Hawaii and made from local ingredients.” And that, because consumers are more likely to purchase and pay more for locally-sourced snacks, "Pinnacle is exploiting the State of Hawaii for its own financial benefit, at the expense of the deceived consumers.”
"We know ‘Luau Barbeque Rings’ doesn’t make sense, but 98 percent of the country doesn’t know," said the company's co-founder.
At some level, the point of advertising is to trick consumers into spending more than they might for a generic version of a brand-name item. If the women in grass skirts on the front of the bag inspire people to purchase the chips, then the marketing people over at Hawaiian Snacks have accomplished what they set out to do. And the brand has not shied away from attributing their success in part to the island association. In a 2011 piece in Hawaii Business Magazine about how "companies worldwide steal the Hawaii brand to leverage their products," Hawaiian Snacks was the lead example. Jeff Leichleiter, one of the co-founders of Tim’s Cascade Snacks who has since retired, told the outlet, “We know ‘Luau Barbeque Rings’ doesn’t make sense, but 98 percent of the country doesn’t know. The Hawaii image is a powerful brand—and it’s done well for us." (We reached out to the lawyer representing Pinnacle Foods in the suit and asked for a comment, specifically citing the quotes provided to Hawaii Business Magazine, but have not yet received a response. We will update this story if we do.)
That article makes it clear that "[i]t may be irresponsible and misleading, but it is not illegal" to market a product with Hawaiian imagery. But where things get a little tricky for Hawaiian Snacks is in the lawsuit's citing of HRS §486-119. The so-called Made In Hawaii Statute specifies that "No person shall keep, offer, display or expose for sale, or solicit for the sale of any item, product, souvenir, or any other merchandise that is labeled 'made in Hawaii' or that by any other means misrepresents the origin of the item as being from any place within the State" (emphasis added).
The plaintiffs have demanded a jury trial to determine if they were willfully and malignantly misled by these potato chips. Even snack foods can catfish, it seems.