Absurd rumors, real harm Urban legends are fiction, but the fact is, they hurt consumers, businesses

September 13, 1998|By Sheryl Harris

ONCE UPON a time, folk tales had foxes and gnomes.

Today, they have ... fast-food chicken from Company X that can make you sterile just by eating it!

... cactuses from Company Y that are so full of baby spiders, they'll explode when you get them into your house!

... the designer who doesn't want Asians wearing his clothes!

Who needs the Weekly World News when you can rely on the friend of a friend for such juicy tidbits?

Urban legends, the folk tales of the 20th century, can sway consumers - and affect companies' bottom lines.

Are the tales absolute fiction? Definitely.

But who cares?

"It doesn't matter in one way if [an urban legend] happened or not. If people think it happened, it's almost as important as if it did," says Alan Dundes, who teaches folklore at the University of California at Berkeley. "People make decisions based on them."

Church's, Snapple, Procter & Gamble, Liz Claiborne, Tommy Hilfiger and Ikea are a few of the companies that have had to fight off unfounded rumors.

Urban legends are always told as true stories. And they're always attributed to a friend of a friend, rather than to any actual person who can be named, writes folklorist-author Jan Brunvand, a retired college professor.

Like all rumors, legends change over time, and even the company isn't the same from one telling to the next.

The spiders-in-the-cactus story is this: A woman notices that the new cactus she bought is shaking, calls the store where she bought it and is told to evacuate her home immediately. Store employees in protective gear show up, and just then, the cactus explodes, sending hundreds of baby spiders (in some versions, scorpions) skittering all over the house.

Brunvand says versions he heard in the early '90s cited Frank's Nursery in Michigan as the source of the exploding houseplant, but he tracked down a mid-'80s story in which the culprit was the British store Marks & Spencer. In the freshest version, Ikea gets a chance to be the bad guy.

During the past 10 years, a lot of urban legends seem to be something a friend of a friend saw on "Oprah."

For example, Liz Claiborne was targeted in the early '90s when it was widely claimed she said during an interview with Oprah that she didn't like black women to wear her clothes.

Oprah went on the air to set the record straight, saying that not only had it not happened but Liz Claiborne had never been on the show.

No matter. The same rumor was revived last year, this time with Tommy Hilfiger as the culprit. The Hilfiger rumor further mutated, with one version saying he didn't want African-Americans to wear his clothes and another insisting it was Asians. The rumormongers are apparently unaware that Hilfiger regularly uses black models in his ads and that the chairman of Hilfiger's company is Asian-American.

The problem with these stories is that consumers can be influenced by them, even if they believe the rumor is absurd or untrue, says Anne Brumbaugh, an assistant professor of marketing at Case Western Reserve University.

Take a consumer deciding between two products, with no real preference. "In the absence of other information I it's just that small grain of sand that may tip you away," she said.

Many folklorists believe that urban legends aimed at companies are a weird consumer backlash; instead of fighting companies ++ with fact, consumers settle for fiction, says folklorist Dundes.

Patricia Turner, a folklorist who has focused on African-American urban legends, found that rumors of Ku Klux Klan ownership of various companies increased after the companies introduced higher-priced products.

She theorizes that it's easier for consumers to justify not buying a product by referring to a rumor rather than saying, "The price is too high."

An example from Turner's book, "I Heard Through the Grapevine," centers on Church's fried chicken, which for a while fended off rumors of KKK ownership but also had to deal with the more fantastic rumor that its chicken had an ingredient that would sterilize black men.

Turner tracked the rumor for almost a decade and determined it had no basis in fact. But she noticed that people who recited the rumor would often additionally comment on the price of making chicken at home vs. eating out, or would remark that fried chicken had a lot of cholesterol. When the price and risk of a product is perceived by customers to outweigh its usefulness, consumers might be more likely to buy into a rumor, she concluded.

But rumors can hurt consumers. For one thing, it might dissuade them from shopping based on the actual value of a product.

Another example is the Gerber rumor, which has it that the baby food company settled a lawsuit over baby food additives by agreeing to give $500 savings bond to children born in certain years. As a result, misguided parents keep sending their children's birth dates and Social Security numbers to post office boxes, and it's not clear who's getting the mail.

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