In September 2002, Campbell’s Soup released another round of its “Mama’s Boys” commercials, those ads where assorted NFL players’ mothers forced their in-uniform sons to eat steaming bowls of Campbell’s Chunky Soup. Although you might’ve forgotten about watching then-Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb try not to chew his soup on-camera, at the time, the campaign was a massive success—because Campbell’s was determined to make it one.
When it released this set of “Mama’s Boys” spots—the first ones where the mamas were all portrayed by the players’ actual mamas—Campbell’s bought $25 million worth of airtime. That media buy was the biggest in Chunky soup history, and it ensured that you could see Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher eating soup on television at almost any hour of the day. The commercials were inescapable by design, which is partially why McNabb’s mother was parodied on Saturday Night Live (by a wig-wearing Keenan Thompson) and why late-night talk show hosts started writing Chunky-themed punchlines.
Even though a lot of those jokes are stupid-old, they were one of the reasons why Campbell’s has decided to trademark the word “Chunky.” According to Adweek , Campbell referenced parodies from “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Daily Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Americans and The Onion” in its application to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
And, in what might be a first for a trademark filing, Campbell’s application also quoted lyrics from Ghostface Killah (“Leave your brain all chunky like I'm advertising soup for Campbell's”) and a Chunky-referencing passage from Colson Whitehead’s PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel Sag Harbor.
Although it seems like Campbell’s isn’t just salty because of the sodium phosphate, a company rep says that’s absolutely not the case.
“The parodies aren’t what prompted Campbell to file for the trademark registration. We instead filed because we believe that the Chunky trademark has ‘secondary meaning,’ which means consumers uniquely associate the word “Chunky” with Campbell, in connection with soup,” Campbell’s spokesperson Kaitlin Bitting told MUNCHIES. “The USPTO considers unsolicited media to be one of the strongest forms of evidence of secondary meaning, and the parodies were among a number of examples of Chunky in pop culture.”
So those Ghostface bars were part of Campbell’s illustration of the connection between the brand and its Chunky soups—and it worked. The New Jersey-based soup company was awarded a trademark, which means that the label will now include a tiny circled R beside that word that I don’t even want to have to type again.
“I do not think [the trademark] should have been granted no matter how much evidence they put forth,” patent attorney Laurie Marshall told Adweek. “How else would you describe liquids with solids? That’s what they are: chunks in a liquid.”
Bitting explained that the trademark still allows competitors to use the phrase “chunky-style” to describe their own cans of soup, but use of the actual c-word is a little more complicated.
“There is not an issue with non-prominent, descriptive uses of the word that aren’t a trademark or brand name,” she said. “Amy’s Chunky Vegetable is a good example of a descriptive use where the word ‘chunky’ is being used to describe a particular variety and isn’t being used as a brand.”
The trademark is great for Campbell’s, but it kind of blows for other soup companies. Nobody’s mom is going to heat up a bowl of “Clumpy” soup.