In the age of the steamship, Mark Twain said, “a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on.” With the advent of computers and the Internet, a lie has time to circle the globe in all cardinal directions before the truth can determine which boots best match its outfit.
Smart companies have seized upon this fact and bent the capricious will of the Internet to their advantage. In 1999, two friends made a movie in the woods for $60,000. By harnessing the spread of misinformation, their production company took a standard tale of horror and sold it as fact to an audience that, for all intents and purposes, spontaneously generated itself. The film, The Blair Witch Project, went on to gross over $248 million worldwide.
But to individuals and companies alike, the effects of an uncontrolled lie — a malicious lie — can be devastating.
In 2004, infomercial huckster and convicted fraudster Kevin Trudeau self-published a book called Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. In the book, Trudeau advocated a host of natural cures for a wide range of common diseases; he further alleged that pharmaceutical companies and the US government — in an attempt to preserve their profit-margins — were actively engaged in suppressing this information. The book, which went on to sell over 5 million copies worldwide, urged readers to become members of Trudeau’s website for $9.95 per month to gain access to additional “cures.”
Trudeau, who was barred by the FTC from making “claims that coral calcium is an effective treatment or cure for cancer and other diseases,” was found in contempt of court for violating the preliminary injunction in 2004. As part of a new agreement, “Trudeau agreed to […] settle charges that he falsely claimed that a coral calcium product can cure cancer and other serious diseases and that a purported analgesic called Biotape can permanently cure or relieve severe pain.”
All told, the book’s proliferation of untruths bilked consumers out of millions of dollars. Through his aggressive turning of the rumor mill’s crank, Trudeau was able to capitalize on people’s natural distrust of the government and take advantage of their desire to be healthy. By exploiting these qualities, he leveraged their vulnerabilities into a multimillion dollar empire.
So, from desiccated man bits to Beelzebub’s shampoo, here’s a list of five unfounded rumors that have swirled around major companies.
They say the devil’s in the details, but in the case of Procter & Gamble (P&G) a longstanding rumor would have you believe that the devil’s in the Downy. Some iterations of the rumor claim that P&G’s CEO appeared on the daytime talk show Donahue, defiantly touting his financial support of the Church of Satan and taking a sadistic glee in proclaiming that, “there are not enough Christians in the United States to make a difference.”
It’s naturally assumed, in this fantasy, that he laughed maniacally before vanishing in a puff of smoke. The only lingering remnants of his presence: a shrink-wrapped copy of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and a gently used cassette of Alice Cooper’s Super Hits.
The truth is that P&G’s CEO never appeared on the Donahue show and P&G’s financial records do not indicate an association with — or financial support of — the Church of Satan.
This rumor has been so persistent that P&G filed suit against a cabal of former Amway distributors for using an automated calling system to “inform” thousands of potential customers that a bulk of P&G’s profits were donated to Satanic cults. In 2007, the court ruled in P&G’s favor, awarding $19.25 million to the company.
In 1991, after Kentucky Fried Chicken began to market itself as KFC, a new production line belched into motion at the rumor mill. Churned out in a haze of black smoke and burnt oil, the story claimed that KFC’s change was not motivated by marketing at all. No, the story went, instead the company was forced — by the government, no less — to change its name because it supposedly served genetically modified animals, not chickens.
The very same reason Soylent Pork became Soylent Green.
In all seriousness, the rumor was able to gain such a strong foothold largely because of the population’s limited understanding — and, therefore, abject fear — of genetically modified foods. Furthermore, even the most cursory look at KFC’s website and marketing materials reveals that they describe a number of their products as “chicken.”
The true reason for KFC’s change in branding is far less insidious and equally less likely to find itself repeated on daytime talk shows or between friends during their discussion of fair-trade, organic tea at the local Trader Joe’s. As KFC grew, it began to offer more items, many of which contained no chicken at all. In addition, the change allowed the company to distance itself from the word “fried,” which was becoming less and less enticing to a market obsessed with eating healthier meals.
The rumor goes that upon his death in December of 1966, Walt Disney had his body — or parts of it — cryogenically frozen and locked away in a chamber beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. The original source of this bizarre rumor is unknown, though in a 1969 interview, a Disney publicist suggested that the rumor originated with a group of bizarrely humored Disney animators.
Two biographies, Robert Moseley’s Disney World and Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, offered myriad unfounded speculations and claims that further perpetuated the myth. Both books wax poetic on the subject of Disney’s preoccupation with extending his life, suggesting that he “became acquainted with the experiments into the process known as cryogenesis.”
In 1972, Disney’s daughter, Diana, wrote about the situation, stating that “[t]here is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen.” In fact, the fate of Disney’s remains is well documented. He was cremated on December 17, 1966, two days after his death, and his ashes were interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.
In 2011, an Alabama law firm filed suit against Taco Bell alleging that their “seasoned ground beef” did not meet the USDA’s minimum requirements to be labeled as “beef.” The firm, Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, claimed that tests performed on Taco Bell’s meat revealed that it contained less than 35% beef. Indignant, cheap taco enthusiasts fired back by alleging that the firm’s name consisted of more than 35% of a phone book.
Within a day, Taco Bell corporate had donned their lucha libre masks and assumed a flamboyantly offensive posture (but not really). President and Chief Concept Officer Greg Creed went on record saying, “we buy our beef from the same trusted brands you find in the supermarket, like Tyson Foods” and assured diners that Taco Bell “start[s] with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef.”
In April of the same year, the law firm dropped the suit. When the smoke had settled, Taco Bell launched a promotion promising to give away 10 million free tacos, spending between $3 million and $4 million in an attempt to disperse the virulent cloud of rumors created by the false allegations.
The origin of this rumor is nebulous at best. What is known is that in 1999 the Wall Street Journal reported that the rumors of Mountain Dew’s detrimental effect on men’s nether regions were spreading across the country like wildfire. In every high school in every state, teenagers found themselves asking, “Can Mountain Dew lower my sperm count?” and, “does Mountain Dew make your testicles smaller?” and most importantly, “will it shrink my penis?”
The rumor typically cites the testicle-shriveling ingredient as Yellow Dye No. 5, which is absolutely not the same as Love Potion No. 9, so don’t even bother trying. In truth, Yellow Dye No. 5 is an FD&C coloring agent that is used to give Mountain Dew its characteristic yellow (surprise) color. The dye has been deemed safe by the FDA and has been proven to have little or no effect on sperm count.