Internet hoaxes

     Tall tales have been around for years. The internet hasn’t. Together they can wreak havoc with your reputation. Sherri Deatherage Green looks at how to handle a hoax.

       P.T. Barnum may have been right when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but please don’t tell my son. He’s a sucker for suckers. Tootsie Pops in particular, or at least the colored waxed paper wrapped around them. Some kid told him he could get a free Pop if he found a picture of an Indian shooting a star on the wrapper. My son ecstatically discovered several, but since 8 year olds are blessed with mercifully short attention spans, he never got around to redeeming them.

            Chicago based Tootsie Roll Industries does not, in fact, trade full wrappers for empty ones. But that hasn’t stopped the star shooting Indian rumor from circulating for nearly 60 years. Parents pass it down to their offspring. Soft hearted store keepers sustain the myth by humoring children with free candy, according to postings on one internet message board. I can understand the reluctance to burst a kid’s bubble. When my son heard me talking to the Tootsie Roll people on the phone, you’d have thought he had just learned the truth about Santa Claus.

            Having all been 8 years old at one time, we can remember how outlandish stories spread across playgrounds and baseball diamonds. The tales change and grow with each retelling. Verbal gossip can spread like wildfire, but email throws napalm into the flames. Unlike word-of-mouth stories, chain emails spread from reader to reader relatively unchanged. “The internet certainly makes it very easy for someone to pass the rumor on,” says Linda Ulrey, a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble. Falsehoods linking P&G to Satanism surfaced in the early 1980s and, like the Tootsie Pop myth, later made the leap to cyberspace.

            The effects of internet hoaxes are nebulous at best. Contrary to what many trash emails would lead you to believe, companies cannot track recipients, so they have little way of determining who the erroneous messages reach. In all likelihood, while the subset of recipients who actually believe what they read is too small in most cases to have directly measurable impact on revenues or stock prices, reputation of companies and brand positioning can suffer in the long term. The true opportunity to affect a company’s image, positively or negatively, arises when customers contact them to check out the truth of such rumors.

            Do rational adults actually believe they will receive cash, cars or free trips to Disneyland for forwarding junk emails? Deep down, probably not. But if clicking a mouse is the only effort required to enter the sweepstakes, then they really don’t have much to lose. Anonymity doesn’t put personal credibility at risk like spreading unfounded rumors face-to-face. Forwarders can plausibly deny responsibility for a doubtful message someone else wrote, observes David Emery, site guide for

            Tall tales always have been with us, Emery notes. "I think we’re all suckers for a good story ... we would all like it if life itself were like a story, with a beginning and a middle and an end, and if the bad guys always got their comeuppance.”

            Technology gives birth to several suckers a minute. Thousands of new internet users log on daily. They believe the written word because most of what they read in the hard copy realm comes from reliable sources.          “When they first hit the internet, they are very gullible,” Emery notes. On the other hand, veteran surfers often become so jaded they don’t heed legitimate warnings.  The constant influx of newbies means hoaxes never really die, they just get deleted by people who have read them already.

            Finding the source of an erroneous or malicious internet hoax is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Even if a company gets lucky and identifies an originating address, the account might be an alias closed immediately after the email was sent. Techies are finding better ways, however, to root out internet offenders. Cybersleuth, a new service offered by eWatch, claims a success rate exceeding 80 percent, although marketing and sales VP James Alexander concedes his company can’t always link a name to the electronic source of a false rumor.

            How to deal with a rumormonger when you catch him is another question. Malice is never easy to prove in a court of civil law, and prosecuting a hoaxer can be difficult in many states unless he has done something that would be illegal in the bricks and mortar world.  Many companies don't even try, either because tracking down hoaxes isn't worth the effort or because they find protecting customer privacy more important than seeking vengeance.

     “That’s really an uphill battle,” admits Peter Marino, a spokesman for Miller Brewing Co. Last year, an email made the rounds claiming that if two million people received it by the New Year, everyone along the electronic chain would get a free six pack of beer. Miller made no effort to identify the culprit. “We just didn’t feel like it was time or energy well spent,” Marino says.

            Emery groups email hoaxers into two primary categories people who misunderstand an issue and want to warn others, and plain old pranksters. “This is human nature,” he says. “We love to scare other people and we love to be scared. That's why we tell ghost stories around campfires.”

            Other rumors may be started by disgruntled employees or customers. Although Emery says he hasn’t found any sites confirming the theory, it is easy to suspect that some people who spread bad news have ulterior, financial motive.           For example, the latest incarnation of an email claiming bleached tampons contain dangerous dioxin advises women to buy all cotton feminine hygiene products from health food stores. P&G has sued several Amway distributors for spreading the Satanic myth, and sustained rumors eventually forced the company to abandoned its 140 year old “man in the moon” trademark. Marketers should take internet hoaxes seriously because they can sour one of the most important ingredients in the brand building recipe trust. “The brand relationship is based almost entirely on trust, once you get past the product need,” says Bob Griffith, principal of strategy, marketing and branding for Publicis Dialog’s New York office

            Erroneous rumors also can provide an opportunity to build trust, adds James Flores, account services VP at M/C/C in Dallas . “By being honest and forthcoming with your customer, you can show them you care,” Flores says. “And that goes a long way toward building brand loyalty.”

            Other companies prefer to say as little as possible about absurd tales, for fear of lending them legitimacy. “I don't have a lot of interest in becoming the case study du jour,” says KFC spokesperson Michael Tierney.  Coming soon to an inbox near you: a recent false claim that KFC’s poultry can’t legally be called chicken because of genetic alterations.

      Hoaxes aren’t all bad, as Marino learned during the free beer tribulation.  “It got Miller in front of a lot of people through the internet,” even though heavy web traffic kept some people from viewing its site. “Maybe it did influence people,” Marino adds.

            Nike turned lemons into lemonade after an email falsely claimed it would send new sneakers to anyone who mailed back their old ones. The sportswear giant doesn’t often give away products, but it does recycle rubber soles into “safe-fall” surfaces for the tracks and playgrounds it donates to charity, said spokesman Scott Reames. Nike sent Reuse-A-Shoe brochures to the 5,000 or so people who fell for the scam and offered to return their shoes. Less than one percent wanted their smelly sneakers back. “They kind of felt good about Nike because they found out we really do recycle shoes,” Reames says. Although Nike went to a lot of trouble and expense to respond to the hoax, ultimately it increased positive awareness of its charitable activities.

            Back at Tootsie Roll Industries, folks grew fond of the enduring star-shooting myth and decided it might be a sign of good luck. They made up a legend about a mystical Indian chief appearing before a candy maker and teaching him how to put soft chocolate centers inside hard lollipops.  Children who mail in wrappers now get a copy of the legend in return. So, as the Tootsie Roll people might (but probably wouldn’t) say about suckers and the rumors they believe, if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.

  CASE STUDY - Tired old hoax goes flat by the time it hits Coca-Cola

       The names may change, but the scam remains the same.     It all started way back in 1997 (that really was a long time ago in internet years). Some prankster sent out a grammatically atrocious message from “Your friend, Bill Gates” claiming the Microsoft master just sat down and whipped up a nifty new email tracking program. All the  recipient had to do was forward this message along to others and wait for a check for $1,000, which would be mailed shortly.

            To unsophisticated internet users, the idea that someone could track emails didn’t seem  completely implausible. So even skeptics weren’t too averse to sending “Bill’s” message on its merry way on the slim chance that they might actually receive money for nothing. “At a cool $1  million per thousand recipients, Bill Gates must be on the hook for more than a few hundred  billion dollars by now,” cracks David Mikkelson, who explains on his urban legends web site,, that such advanced email tracking programs are not possible, even with today’s technology.

            The message gradually mutated. Maybe the form that showed up in your inbox offered a trip to Disneyland , an IBM computer, a Honda or a gift certificate good for merchandise from any one of several popular brands.  Hoaxers even had AOL merging first with Netscape and more recently Intel (they never seemed to catch on to the Time Warner thing). Now Coca-Cola has become the latest big-name victim of this type of scam.

            The Coca-Cola version, which came to the company’s attention in early February, promised four cases of Coke to anyone who would forward the message and help the beverage giant to build a database. It was signed “Always Coca‑Cola, Mike Hill,” a fictitious marketing director dreamed up by the hoaxer. Consumer response calls to the 800 number printed on Coke products gave the company its first inkling that something was amiss.

            “We are trying to take a proactive stance,” says assistant new media and information services manager John Moore. “The internet is a new medium for just about everyone, but we approach this just like we would any other communication.” In addition to responding to all customers who call, write or email, Coca-Cola placed a message on its own web site in late February debunking the hoax and alerted to help spread the word.

            Internet users, perhaps jaded by earlier email tracking scams, haven’t bombarded Coca-Cola with emails and phone calls, although a steady stream of them contact the company daily. Moore hopes Coca‑Cola’s interaction with customers who do inquire or complain will leave them with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the company. “Any time a consumer contacts us, we consider it a number one priority,” he says.


       Your customer service manager just called because the phones won’t stop ringing. People want to know why they didn’t find a coupon for a free massage in the packaging of your product. Reliable friends sent them emails about the promotion, so it must be true, right? Heed the following tips from pros who have been rubbed the wrong way by internet hoaxes:

  • Investigate. You may not be able to pinpoint the source of the rumor, but knowledge is power,  so find out as much as you can. Perhaps more importantly than determining who’s to blame, companies should gauge whether the hoax will have any real effect on sales or stock prices, advises James Alexander of eWatch.
  • Act swiftly. But take care not to overreact. If the untruth has not been widely disseminated, don’t call attention to it.
  •             Contact customers directly. Always respond attentively to customer inquiries. If the rumor is relatively contained or if your market is narrow or specialized, James Flores of M/C/C recommends taking the initiative to inform your “circle of friends.”
  • Go to the media. No one likes negative publicity, but if you encounter a widely spread hoax that affects a broad consumer market, reporters can be your friends. “Internet problems get so big you can’t solve them on your own,” Flores says. “You can’t get information out broadly enough fast enough to keep it from mushrooming.”
  • Use the Web. Posting a well‑crafted response on your company web site lets customers quickly check out a rumor’s validity on their own.
  • Go to the phones. Keep your customer service people in the loop so they can respond to calls accurately and promptly.
  • Recruit third parties. Outside sources willing to help debunk the false information lend extra credence to your position, says Linda Ulrey of P&G.
  • Should you find the culprit, be careful how you respond. “Whatever you communicate with the entity will show up online,” Alexander warns.

  (c) Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Limited 2000. No part of this data may be reproduced without prior written permission of the copyright owner.

  Revolution USA , April 2000

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