Psst! Hey, have you heard the latest? 'Nation of gossips' wild about rumors

November 24, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Pity poor Oldsmobile. The auto company is alive and healthy, yet battling rumors that it's running out of gas.

Once again, the specter of the corporate urban myth rears its ugly head. And we're left to wonder just how these stories get started.

Surely nobody believes that McDonald's uses worms in its hamburger, or that a Kmart customer found a snake in the sleeve of a coat. And for the past 10 years, Procter & Gamble has battled confounding rumors that one of its company executives appeared on a talk show to discuss Satanism -- and that the company donates money to the Church of Satan.

As for Oldsmobile -- its problems started when General Motors Corp. suggested it could become a step-up model for Saturn buyers. People have been talking about Oldsmobile's demise ever since.

So why do we love spreading these stories around?

"We're a nation of gossips," says Janet Langlois, director of the folklore archives at Wayne State University in Detroit. "We feel like we can't exist unless we're in the loop."

The P&G debacle is probably at the peak of the mountain of corporate urban myths. There's the one about the rat at the bottom of the Coca-Cola bottle, and the accompanying Kentucky Fried rat. There was the claim that Liz Claiborne went on the Oprah Winfrey show and made racist comments about blacks, and that Ms. Winfrey kicked her off the show.

Jan Brunvand, an English professor and folklorist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, says these rumors can start easily and informally.

"Often, an urban legend has very little history to back it up, it's just a surface report," the folklorist says. In modern times, these "harmless" rumors are transmitted via fax, over computer bulletin boards. Often, radio call-in shows are a prime source of these myths.

People don't just target companies. Paul McCartney started a furor by posing with his back turned on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, and by appearing out of step on the Abbey Road album. Frenzied fans interpreted these photos as meaning Mr. McCartney was dead. Actor Abe Vigoda, best known as Sergeant Fish from the "Barney Miller show," took out a full-page ad in Variety after seeing stories referring to him as the "late Abe Vigoda."

Mr. Vigoda kept his sense of humor about it; in the ad, he was sitting up in a coffin, reading Variety.

But some rumors are just too bizarre to figure. One of the most recent urban myths is one claiming that Ernie, Bert's roommate on "Sesame Street," is dying of leukemia.

"Oh no, not again," groaned Ellen Morgenstern, spokeswoman for Children's Television Workshop in New York, when asked about Ernie's health. "Ernie's not dying of AIDS, he's not dying of leukemia. Ernie is a puppet." The Ernie stories have circulated for the past year, Ms. Morgenstern says. But the furor is sort of flattering.

"It's amazing that a rumor like this could send shock waves throughout the country," Ms. Morgenstern says. "It's an indication of how much Ernie is loved."

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