Consumer Rumors, Part 2

In yesterday’s column on corporate-focused rumors, I mentioned the book Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America, in which authors Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner describe, among other things, rumors that follow what they call a “Topsy/Eva pattern:” The target is the same, but the rumor’s details vary along racial lines. That’s where I’m picking up today.

Another Topsy/Eva cycle has spawned sets of similar rumors around a couple of clothing designers. Liz Claiborne, in one version, admits to supporting satanic cults in an appearance on the old Phil Donahue Show. (The CEOs of Procter & Gamble and McDonald’s have also supposedly professed their Satanism on the show.) In a black variation, Claiborne appears on Oprah and basically fesses up to being a white supremacist who would rather that black women not wear her clothing. Turner and Fine quote Spike Lee, in an October 1992 Esquire interview, repeating this tale: “Claiborne got on and said she didn’t make her clothes for black people to wear. Oprah stopped the show and told her to get her ass off the set. … It definitely happened. Get the tape. Every black woman in America needs to go to her closet, throw that shit out and never buy another stitch of clothes from Liz Claiborne.” (As with yesterday’s column, I’ll rely on the helpful site for debunking; is also a good site.) Yet another variation involves Tommy Hilfiger, also on Oprah, or perhaps on a CNN program, describing blacks (and/or, in some versions, Asians) with racial epithets.

In a 1985 book (now out of print) called Rumor in the Marketplace: The Social Psychology of Commercial Hearsay, Tulane’s Frederick Koenig summarizes some general points about corporate-targeted rumors. Beneath the surface story, they usually strive to make a deeper point, often turning on the idea of conspiracy. They frequently gain the most currency with a specific “rumor public,” and serve as “verification” for ideas that that public believes but can’t quite prove, and perhaps believes traditional news sources suppress. (“Rumors concerning a threatening and unpredictable world make a person’s current disturbed and anxious state of mind seem more appropriate and reasonable.”) And in social groups, passing on a rumor can be a source of prestige and attention-getting: In “an interesting twist on conventional network theory,” a typically non-influential group member becomes influential not by way of expertise but through spreading ” ‘contraband’ non-verified information.”

But the more puzzling question is why wider groups believe conspiratorial rumors—or spread them, at least. Turner and Fine make some interesting points about this. While they argue that rumors only rarely come from a single “vicious mind” bent on spreading a malicious mistruth to cause damage, there’s another level at which they do function as a sort of weapon for disaffected consumers. “Spreading rumors about the nature of the companies and the quality of the goods” is one of the few options available to such a consumer, apart from simply refusing to buy. “As a consequence, rumors and contemporary legends have assumed a prominent place in the anticorporate arsenal and serve, however unconsciously, as a weapon of the weak. These rumors serve as truth claims, which allege that consumers properly mistrust those products that they are ambivalent about purchasing.” They point to the Claiborne nonsense as a kind of rationale for refusing to buy clothes that for many are prohibitively expensive in any case. “In labeling Liz Claiborne a racist or a Satanist, consumers are really condemning her for being a conspicuous capitalist promoting conspicuous consumption.”

That might be overstating things, but perhaps there’s something to it. Fine and Turner note that even interviewees who said they don’t believe this or that rumor simultaneously take a “better safe than sorry” attitude and sometimes end up avoiding the targeted product anyway: “To disbelieve a rumor in one’s mind does not mean that one’s actions will follow.”

Rumors also get passed along for the less serious reason that they are entertaining, but this last point from Fine and Turner raises the possibility that even the notion of disbelieving a rumor is a little murkier than it appears. Many people, on some level, mistrust corporate power. So they might dismiss a specific tale, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suspicious. It’s not as if cover-ups and conspiracies never happen. In a section of the book dealing with rumors that circulate among blacks about the government, it’s no surprise that interviewees often mentioned the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, which of course were not a mere rumor at all. “Within the African-American community,” Fine and Turner state flatly, “white corporations and the white-dominated government structure provide the greatest threat.” All this doesn’t mean that false rumors shouldn’t be contradicted and debunked immediately—they should. But it makes a case that simply dismissing fake rumors as irrelevant isn’t necessarily the most constructive path.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, I remember being told by a friend that the then-popular Troop brand was controlled by “some KKK guy.” I don’t think I ever repeated this tall tale, but I thought of it whenever I saw somebody wearing Troop clothes and wondered if there really was, somewhere, an Imperial Wizard cackling about the scam he’d pulled off. I wasn’t exactly a critical thinker at that age, so I never looked into the matter; I was old enough to know that nefarious truths can be hidden behind pleasant façades, but young enough to think that literally anything was possible. Today, of course, I see myself as being wiser and more discerning about what I believe and what I discount, and smart enough to see through an obviously false rumor. But then again, who doesn’t?