People are Talking About You! You are So Screwed!

For Chapter 4. "Talk is Cheap"

By Published on .

Word of mouth is great, except when it isn't.

I've already mentioned Ishtar, the Dustin Hoffman/Warren Beatty vehicle that crashed and burned in 1987. Think, too, of the Salem witch trials through which mean-spirited gossip mutated into community-sanctioned murder.

Or the bank runs of the 1930s, when panicked depositors heard rumors about losing access to their savings and by queuing up at teller cages created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or the McCarthy witch hunts of the 50s, built on nothing but whispered denunciations of supposed disloyalty. Or the current conspiracy theory, considered fact among more than half the population of the Arab and Muslim worlds (according to the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project), that the attacks of 9/11 were not an Al Qaeda plot but a U.S. or Israeli one.

Or, just for the diabolical fun of it, try Googling "Procter & Gamble" and "Satanism." Decades of bizarre rumors, rooted in P&G's vaguely creepy moon-and-stars logo, have connected the maker of Tide, Pampers, Crest and Oil of Olay to the Church of Satan.

This culminated in the urban legend that the company president appeared on the Sally Jessy Raphael/Merv Griffin/Phil Donahue program in 1999 to declare corporate sympathy for the devil. You can even look up the date. It was March 1. And when Sally/Merv/Phil asked him if the Satan connection would hurt business, the executive replied: "There are not enough Christians in the United States to make a difference."

Obviously, none of that really ever happened. Procter & Gamble is not a tool of Satan. (Duh. That would be Microsoft.) But many cling stubbornly to the belief, because they heard it from their hairdresser, or their cousin the Amway distributor, or their pastor. The oft-cited power of WOM, of course, is that we all tend to deem more credible information passed on by people we know personally. Unfortunately, this is true of misinformation, as well, and misinformation is extremely difficult to eradicate.
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