Consumer Rumors, Part 1

In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, a rumor went around that Snapple, the beverage-maker, is owned by Osama Bin Laden. As ludicrous as this sounds, Snapple (a division of Cadbury Schweppes) took it seriously enough to issue a stern denial earlier this year. A useful site called regularly debunks such tales, and while it’s easy to quickly wave away silly rumors as an absurd distraction, I’m going to spend some time on them for two reasons. First, a recent book, Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner’s Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America, makes an interesting case that such stories aren’t as inexplicable as you might think. Second, I happen to find company-targeted rumors fascinating—so much so that today’s column is the first of two parts on the subject.

Although their focus is broader, Fine and Turner devote a chapter to outrageous rumors that over the years have attached to various corporations. Their point is not to snicker that anyone could ever believe wild stories, but to try and work out why certain sorts of rumors seem to have a life of their own. As the title of the book suggests, they’re particularly interested in how race might shape the process.

It happens that Snapple has been a rumor target before. In the early 1990s, one set of rumors had the company donating a share of its profits to radical anti-abortion groups, and another claimed the firm was owned by Klansmen. In those cases, too, Snapple issued denials and the stories faded. This is an example of what Fine and Turner call a Topsy/Eva pattern, after a once-popular doll that, held one way, is Little Eva, who is white, and held another is Topsy, who is black. (These are characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Rumors in this category “describe the identical topic but are transformed to make cultural sense depending on the community in which they are spread.” When the target is a supposed corporate conspiracy, the white version tends to address alleged behavior that isn’t race-related. Meanwhile, “black rumors play on the belief in racial animus by the elites.” The Snapple-funds-anti-abortionists story was spread mostly among whites; the Snapple-KKK rumor spread mostly among blacks.

Not all rumor cycles are race-specific, and an example of one that crossed all boundaries is the legend of the Kentucky Fried Rat, in which someone goes to a fast-food outlet, buys some chicken, begins eating in some low-light situation, and finally discovers that he or she is scarfing down a rat that has been accidentally fried in the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices. This incredibly hearty legend dates back decades. (A more recent rumor, spread widely on the Internet, is that the chain changed its name to KFC because it no longer uses chicken, but rather “genetically mutated organisms … kept alive by tubes inserted into their bodies to pump blood and nutrients throughout their structure. They have no beaks, no feathers, and no feet.”)

Another fast-food chicken rumor had the Church’s chain being owned by the KKK, which spiked its offerings with a secret ingredient that sterilized black men. Another story linked the Popeyes chain to the Klan, and yet others have made a Klan connection to Colonel Sanders and others. The founders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, and Church’s have been the subject of rumors (circulating “almost exclusively within African-American populations”) alleging that they stole their recipes from working-class black acquaintances. 

But why so many chicken-focused rumors generally? Perhaps, Fine and Turner suggest, because “fried chicken is personally prepared food that has been taken over by corporate capitalism.” Consumers have “ambivalent attitudes” about fast food generally and its effects on “hearth and home,” and the authors argue this is especially true when the targeted foodstuff is “a time-honored staple, with deep roots in American cuisine” and associated with church events and Sunday dinner. For blacks, they add, this is compounded by “negative stereotypes of blacks as unscrupulous chicken thieves and rapacious consumers of fried chicken.”

Their argument, then, is that the Kentucky Fried Rat, for instance, can be read as a kind of morality tale: See what happens when you take chicken out of the home? Snapple is similar in that tea used to be something rather simple and homey. Along comes “a fairly new company … pushing [consumers] to buy a new product that had previously been unnecessary.” Of the subjects Fine and Turner interviewed who had heard and in some cases believed the rumors, “most” were fond of Snapple, but complained about its relative priciness. They write, “Products that enjoy overnight success, appearing ‘from nowhere,’ often trigger consumer concern.”

But isn’t there more (or perhaps less) to it than this? Of course. That’s why this two-part series will continue tomorrow—or so I hear.