Ellia Kassoff runs an empire built on nostalgia. His business? Snatching up the rights to old candy and snack brands—iconic names, like Astro Pops and Hydrox Cookies—that have fallen on hard times and, broadly speaking, disappeared from store shelves. But how he gains the rights to produce these goodies is what makes this episode interesting.
Trademarks are a little bit different from other sorts of “properties,” like a copyright or patent. Trademarks, as I learned, serve two purposes. The first is to protect consumers from copycat products. The episode uses Coca-Cola as an example. If you buy a can of Coke from a vending machine, a trademark ensures that only genuine Coke can market itself as such, and so you, the consumer, know exactly what you’re getting before you spend your money. The second, in turn, is to protect the business interests of Coke’s parent company by keeping fakes off store shelves.
But, and this is key, trademarks are only valid when they are in constant use. Soon after a trademark falls into disuse, it becomes “abandoned,” and others can start to market their own products under that moniker. For the trademarks Kassoff now owns, he has legally established that their original owners no longer have plans to use their names. For instance, in the case of Hydrox Cookies, he wrote a letter to the brand’s most recent past parent company, Kellogg, posing as a Hydrox fan; he asks where the cookies are sold, and in what forms they come. Kellogg replied that there weren’t enough fans of the cookies, and that they have been discontinued. He then forwarded the correspondence to the trademark office and Kellogg, stating his intent to take control of the trademark.
And, after a year (with no response from Kellogg), Hydrox was his. But that was only the first step. He still had to faithfully recreate the cookie. The episode goes into some detail on how Kassoff went about this—it was pretty interesting. He found where the original vanilla was manufactured and ran elaborate taste tests with old Hydox lovers; he really went the whole nine yards.
What I liked about Friday’s Planet Money had almost nothing to do with any of that. Instead, in the last two minutes of the episode, there was a classic good tape moment—a little blip of radio that makes you appreciate the mode itself, a moment that just wouldn’t have the same effect if it were captured on video, or even experienced in person. Hosts Robert Smith and David Kestenbaum get a package of Hydrox in the mail. Neither of them has had the cookie in more than two decades, but here is this package in front of them. We hear the box open, and David describes how he remembers the cookie tasting all those years ago.
The plastic of package crinkles, the milk glugs into the glass, and the cookies are chewed with a deeply satisfying crunchcrunchcrunch. And, for those moments, I was there with them—tasting the nostalgia, filled with the warm remembrance of things past. Imaginary things, sure, (I’ve never had a Hydrox cookie) but the experience was no less real.
That is until they followed the tape with how underwhelmed they were with the cookie. But, great radio nonetheless.
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