Hear! Hear! A Noted Folklorist Gets at the Root of Rumors
08/23/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
They aren't just 99 and 44/100ths percent untrue. They're pure bunkum. But rumors have been floating for two years that Procter & Gamble, the multi-billion-dollar maker of Ivory soap, Tide laundry detergent, Crest toothpaste and some 70 other products, is in thrall to Satan. By last spring upwards of 3,000 inquiries a week were reaching P&G headquarters in Cincinnati, most of them asking whether the company's moon-and-stars trademark, which dates to 1851, is a satanic symbol. Often callers have heard tell that P&G tithes to Lucifer, or that a top P&G executive had confessed on a TV talk show to selling his soul Faust-like to the devil. P&G's patience in disclaiming any corporate devil worship ran out when the whispering campaign was compounded by widespread distribution of leaflets urging a Christian boycott of its products. Last month libel suits were filed against seven alleged rumormongers, who are charged with circulating false and malicious statements about the company in the South and Southwest. Inquiries have subsided, but about 200 a day are still received at P&G. The staying power of rumors is no surprise to folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker (Norton, $14.95), a study of what he calls contemporary American urban legends—true-sounding stories of, for example, alligators in the New York City sewers, or of hitchhikers who vanish from the backseat and turn out to have been ghosts. "Like a legend, a rumor can take on a life of its own, independent and quite different from what may have happened, "says Brunvand, 49, a professor of English at the University of Utah. Born and raised in Michigan, he lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Judy, and their four children. Brunvand, who is collecting P&G stories for his next folklore book, talked with Nancy Faber of PEOPLE.
Why is the P&G trademark such grist for the rumor mill?
Some rumormongers say if you hold the trademark up to the mirror, the curlicues in the man-in-the-moon's beard form the numerals 666, a biblical symbol of the Antichrist. Seeing images in reverse is like another modern theme: playing rock songs backward to hear subliminal or satanic messages. Of course, the old-fashioned, austere-looking man was a commonplace symbol a century ago when the P&G trademark was designed, like today's happy face. The 13 stars were meant by P&G to stand for the original American colonies. But now they apparently add a superstitious element—if you're ready to believe in the first place.
What is the most outrageous version of the P&G rumors you've heard?
That a P&G executive prayed to God to get rich and his prayers weren't answered, so he prayed to the devil and he got rich. Now he's putting Satan's symbol on products found in every American home. This is an elaborate rumor on its way to being what I call an urban legend—that is, a rumor with a plot and conflict and resolution.
How did the P&G rumors get started?
It's impossible to say. Often somebody will tell you about hearing something from a friend of a friend. If you trace back to that person, you'll be referred to yet another friend of a friend, and so on. Occasionally these accounts appear in newspapers. The P&G rumors have also circulated in church newsletters, mostly among Southern fundamentalists.
Are the P&G rumors unique?
No, they're typical of the kind that get attached to a big company. They bear a striking resemblance to the farfetched—and totally erroneous—story in 1977 that McDonald's was donating a hefty percentage of its profits to a satanic cult. At least nobody ever claimed that the Golden Arches are the gates of hell. The next year McDonald's had to fight other false rumors—that it was using worms and sometimes kangaroo meat in Big Macs. That worms or kangaroo meat cost more per pound than hamburger didn't faze anybody. McDonald's held a few news conferences and placed full-page newspaper ads in areas where the rumors were most prevalent. When the story spread to Burger Chef and Wendy's, both those companies issued statements to the press.
How can companies defuse rumors?
I suggest not taking them seriously. The nature of a rumor is that it dies out as mysteriously as it started—and just as unpredictably.
Could P&G be expected to act nonchalantly about a nationwide campaign of defamation?
It's easy for me to tell a company to drop the lawsuits; I'm not the one losing profits. But I've never heard of a big company going out of business because of rumors.
Are rumors sometimes deliberately planted, say, by competitors of a company?
Foul play was suggested but never proved in a rumor that dates from the 1960s and has since become a legend. The locale is usually a Kmart, where a shopper is looking over some sweaters from the Far East when she feels a pinprick and assumes it's caused by the price tag. Later her arm becomes discolored so she is rushed to the hospital, and the doctor tells her she's been bitten by a rare Taiwanese snake. Don't you love it—the immediate knowledge of this rare creature? They trace back through her day to the Kmart, where it turns out that baby snakes are supposedly hatching among the imported sweaters. Of course, there's no truth to the story, and Kmart has chosen to ignore the rumor and to discuss it as little as possible.
What other big companies have been victimized by rumors?
Coca-Cola has been the target of so many contamination stories—the all-time favorite is a rodent or parts of a rodent in a bottle—that folklorists speak of Cokelore. In 1977 Life Savers was so upset by rumors that spider eggs had been found in its Bubble Yum gum that it took out full-page newspaper ads headlined, "Someone is telling your kids very bad lies about a very good gum."
How does a rumor become a legend, by your definition?
When a skilled storyteller begins to ask "What if?" and when listeners respond, repeat the stories and add their own flourishes, then legends begin to form and to circulate. A real urban legend is "The Kentucky Fried Rat." In one version, a guy and girl pick up a bucket of chicken and head for a drive-in where they eat in the dark watching the movie. The girl—it's always the girl—says, "Mine tastes awful." His always tastes fine. Eventually they turn on the light, and she sees a rat tail protruding from the batter-fried piece she's eating.
Is "The Kentucky Fried Rat" story supposed to have a moral?
It reminds us of real instances when the food industry has been careless. There's also a judgmental element: In another version, a woman runs out to buy a bucket of chicken after wasting her day watching the soaps and passes it off as her own. That she gets the rat tail is seen as poetic justice.
Why do snakes and rats so often appear in these stories?
There's always a generalized fear of such animals and the thought that if such an accident happened to a friend of a friend of yours, it can happen to you. Stories also are spun about spiders that nest in an unwashed, teased hairdo and eat through to the brain, or termites under a cast for a broken leg that eat through the bone.
Aren't these stories quite different from traditional legend?
Classic legends deal with ghosts, haunted houses, buried treasure, outlaws. The new stories happen in cars or suburban homes or shopping malls. But the styles of telling and many of the themes are the same—especially horror. You'll hear bizarre tales about hook-handed marauders menacing young lovers in parked cars, or about people trying to dry pets in the microwave oven and incinerating them.
Hear any other good stories lately?
A story now making the rounds nationwide is about three elderly women on a trip to New York City and quite fearful of crime. They're on an elevator when a large black man with an equally large dog gets on and commands, "Sit!" The three women sink to the floor, at which point the man says, "I was talking to my dog." They strike up a sheepish conversation, and the ladies ask him to recommend a good restaurant in the neighborhood. He does, and when it comes time to pay the check, the waiter says, "No, that tab was paid by Reggie Jackson." The ladies hadn't recognized him.
Has anybody checked the story's veracity with Jackson?
A reporter from Rochester, N.Y. called Reggie on it. Jackson said, "I've heard that story a million times, and it's not true. I would never own a dog in New York. It would be cruel." But the story is still being printed in newspapers; I have clippings from Salt Lake City, New York, Detroit, Columbus, Ohio and Los Angeles. The one thing for sure is that the truth never gets in the way of a good story.