What a viral fake lasagne taught me about failure

After it appeared in the Museum of Failure in 2017, photos of the "Colgate Lasagna" began to go viral on Twitter and Reddit—not to mention in marketing seminars. But did it ever really exist?

January 27, 2020
The mock-up "Beef Lasagna" box. Photo: Reddit
The mock-up "Beef Lasagna" box. Photo: Reddit

Failure is relative. For me, egg poaching pans—the kind with circular inserts and the little egg holding devices—are failures. The eggs come out oddly uniform. The white doesn’t fully encircle the yolk. They are firm and plasticky, not soft and yielding. They are, at best, steamed.

And yet, these pans are widely available and probably present in a good proportion of UK kitchens, taking up cupboard space because they’re so difficult to stack (seriously, bin them). As a product, against all greater wisdom, they have succeeded.

You certainly wouldn’t find one in The Museum of Failure, Dr Samuel West’s showcase of failed innovations that opened in Helsingborg, Sweden, in 2017. It is not on the shelf alongside the Google Glass or Harley Davidson’s perfume. It doesn’t wrestle for your attention next to the Twitter Peek or Coca-Cola Blak. And it could not even attempt to pull your eyes from the weirdest, most ill-conceived product in all the museum: Colgate Beef Lasagne.

The story, widely reported, goes like this: in the 1980s, Colgate veered wildly from their lane when they attempted to enter the lucrative frozen food market in the US with a range of frozen dinners, including this Italian classic. The product failed, and Colgate never spoke of it again. When the museum launched, news outlets leapt upon the mistake, illustrating their articles with the picture of a garish yellow box and Colgate’s instantly recognisable logo above a pretty standard-looking dish. “Yes, you read that right,” said the Mirror. “Yup, that Colgate,” said Food and Wine. “Goodness knows why they decided to branch into food,” opined Heart FM.  Reading through the clippings, Colgate’s faces must have been red. Or they would have been—if the lasagne had ever existed in the first place.

If you actually went to the Museum of Failure, you’d see that the veracity of the lasagne is disputed by Colgate themselves. On the sign beside the exhibit, named as Colgate frozen dinner rather than Beef Lasagne specifically, it says: “When international press wrote about the Museum of Failure, a legal representative called and sternly informed us that the company ‘has no recollection of a Colgate lasagna.’ Either Colgate has a bad memory, or the Museum of Failure got pranked by some branding consultant who started an urban legend years ago.”

In fact, the box itself is a mock-up meant to illustrate a wider product range, the only “fake” thing in the museum. This fact is referred to in most of the articles about it—however, few consider that the reason for this might be that one was never actually produced in the first place. Instead, they all suggest Colgate were simply too embarrassed to take part.

I e-mailed Dr West to ask for clarity on the exhibit and unfortunately got none. “The Colgate frozen food is a bit of a mystery,” he said. “The reconstruction with lasagne was based on images we found online, and even these could have been constructions. My ‘conversation’ with the Colgate lawyer was strange, and suggest that they indeed did have a frozen food product but that it was not specifically lasagne. If this story is not true then I find it strange that Colgate doesn’t give their version—the correct version of the story.”

Marketing outlet The Drum was more sceptical than most about the lasagne, although that didn’t stop them writing about it for their own Failure Awards column from Andrew Eborn. Referring to the frozen food range by a different title, Colgate Kitchen Entrees, claiming it was launched in 1982, he notes that they “do not feature in Colgate’s summary of its impressive 200-year history,” asking: “Is Colgate too embarrassed by its fanciful foray into food or is this perhaps just another fake news story which has managed to fool the media and marketing industry for years?” However, he does claim that Colgate did want to enter the frozen food market, referring to “a number of sources.”

Perhaps they were right to be sceptical. According to Google Trends, searches for “Colgate Lasagne” only began after the Museum of Failure had launched the idea into the world in 2017. Colgate Kitchen Entrees does get a mention in Matt Haig’s 2003 book Brand Failures: The Truth About The 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes Of All Time, but there’s no mention of a lasagne, and no reference to 1982 being the launch date. Matt Haig was unavailable for comment for this article, and the book’s publishers Kogan Page could find no further information on the passage to verify whether or not the range was launched in the 1980s, or whether a lasagne was included.

A baffled customer service operator at Colgate was none the wiser when I called, but Thomas DiPiazza, Director of Corporate Communications for Colgate-Palmolive, offered more clarity. “There was no Colgate Lasagne,” he told me over email, “The product image shown in the link you provided was something made up by the museum to illustrate something that never existed. When I researched this question years ago, I found no evidence of ‘Colgate Kitchen Entrees.’” However, this isn’t the full story either. Further digging revealed Colgate Kitchen Entrees very much did exist, although twenty years earlier than 1982, when Colgate-Palmolive was coming under intense domestic competition from Proctor & Gamble and were looking to branch out into other areas.

This Television Age Magazine profile of Colgate-Palmolive from 1966 mentions that in 1961 a man named George Henry Lesch became the new chairman and president of the company—this expansion being his main task. The article reads: “A line of dried chicken and crabmeat entrees under a Colgate Kitchen label was introduced and quickly withdrawn. An apple-chip called Snapples has been tested off-and-on over a two-year period, and one or two other food items are at various stages.” (Incidentally, the reasons “Snapples” might have failed could be down to the slightly aggressive tone of the advertising copy: “You’re never going to understand how real juicy apples ever got to be crispy, crunchy, munchy Snapples apple chips,” reads one copyright entry.)

These same chicken and crabmeat entrees are referred to more specifically in a weekly digest from the American Institute of Food Distribution, which in 1966 claimed that a range of five products was test-marketed in 1964—but only in Madison, Wisconsin—and then were withdrawn a year later. When presented with this smoking gun, DiPiazza replied: “Where are you headed with this? An article? For whom?” before closing off communications by saying “there was a period in our history when Colgate-Palmolive was a conglomerate with a very diverse array of businesses, including a number of food companies.” He didn’t mention the lasagne.

There is a different, original Colgate food product in a different museum of failure, by the way. One which pre-dates Dr West’s by a good few decades. A marketing professional by the name of Robert McMath—who, coincidentally, once worked for Colgate—began collecting failed products in the 1960s, amassing a collection of over 140,000. Rather than being open to the public, it was appointment only, a litany of cautionary tales for other marketers and product developers keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Colgate’s contribution was Bambeanos, a roasted salted soybean snack they launched in 1975, before withdrawing them a year later when Colgate merged with Texas-based food company Riviana Foods, Ltd.

Now, Riviana Foods are still in operation—although Colgate sold their stake a decade later in 1986—and they do describe themselves as “a world leader in rice and pasta.” Could this be the origin of the Colgate Lasagne? Talking about the merger in his book Sold On Radio, Jim Cox describes Riviana as selling “Texas long-grain rice, pet food, kosher hot dogs and candy,” so it seems unlikely—and even if they did, it seems even more unlikely that it would be branded with the Colgate logo, Bambeanos certainly were not, and nor were another Colgate food product, Puddin’Head Chocolate Pudding, which even had a Mr Potato Head knock-off mascot.

By this point, it almost doesn’t matter. Enough websites and respected publications, buoyed by viral tweets and Reddit threads, have verified its existence without so much as a primary source that getting to the real truth of the matter is an uphill task. Indeed, the virality of the Colgate Lasagne image is wholly dependant on us taking its truth as fact. A picture of a Colgate Lasagne is worth nothing without the idea that this was brainstormed, conceived, put to market, and presumably bought and eaten by people—without that it’s just a mock-up of a fake product. In that sense, it’s much like the kind of viral twitter tales that Tom Whyman dissects in an article for The Outline: not deliberate disinformation or “fake news” but playful, essentially harmless stories, whose impact relies on the audience believing them to be true. Criticising this kind of content, Whyman brings up Werner Herzog’s concept of an “ecstatic truth,” a truth which reflects reality “not how it is on the surface, but how it is on a deep level.” On the threads, he argues “they don't reflect or reveal any reality deeper than what they describe. In this, they have only facts—and of course, as it turns out, they don’t even have that.”

It would be easy to blame the Museum of Failure for their part in this, but arguably they’ve done their due diligence by calling the product into question in their own context, and if you were to need something to illustrate a range of frozen foods—which did exist—then why not a lasagne? It’s the image’s wide dissemination on the internet, shorn of the museum context, that has Frankensteined the idea to life. It now lives in marketing textbooks and student presentations as an example of brand over-extensions, lessons being taught off the back of it as if it were undeniably bonafide.

I keep thinking of the idea of failure though, and whether Dr West should take the lasagne out of his museum. I don’t think he should—but I wonder whether he should change the sign, replacing Colgate Frozen Dinners with The Internet, an invention with utopian goals of knowledge sharing now rife with disinformation and fake news. “The fiction of the future can be much greater than reality ever is,” said Dr West. He was talking about another item in his museum, a car called The Ford Edsel, whose biggest failing was a gear change mechanism that revolved around pressing buttons rather than moving a stick, but he could have been talking about life online. Or maybe he could have been talking about me, who went into writing this article with the hope of finding some truth as to whether a toothpaste brand ever launched a lasagne—and has instead drowned in a mass of conflicting information, brand mergers and frozen foods.