It's not an everyday question at most companies: Do you have any symbols of ram's horns on your products? Yet that's what Procter & Gamble Co.'s public-relations staff is dealing with these days, as they once again fight off rumors that the company is somehow linked to satanism. A satanic ram's-horn symbol, the rumor goes, will soon start appearing on P&G products, bearing the devil's own number, 666.
For P&G, it's the rumor that won't go away. On Aug. 28, the company sued Randy L. Haugen, an independent Amway Corp. distributor in Ogden, Utah, charging that he and unnamed others had made false and defamatory statements linking the company to satanism. This is the sixth suit P&G has filed involving an Amway distributor and the 15th overall since rumors started 15 years ago. But even if P&G wins the case, as it has before, it's not likely that the consumer-products giant will stamp out the rumor.
ON THE HORN. Still, P&G may have a smoking gun this time. Someone slipped the company a recording that had gone out over an Amway voice-mail system available to independent distributors who choose to pay for access. As reported in P&G's suit, the message says that P&G's president appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and "stated that a large portion of the profits from the Procter & Gamble products go to support his satanic church." The message went on to cite 43 P&G brands by name, from Crisco
to Oil of Olay, as well as the by-now-famous bit about the ram's horn.
Procter & Gamble is clearly unhappy with competitor Amway Corp., the Ada (Mich.) company that sells SA8 laundry detergent, Glister toothpaste, and other products through 2 million independent distributors. Procter pointedly observes that Haugen is a high-ranking distributor. It also contends Amway hasn't done enough to stop the rumors, though P&G has so far sued Amway distributors, not the $5.3 billion privately held company itself.
For its part, Amway responds that it "does not condone the spreading of false and malicious rumors against Procter & Gamble." An Amway spokeswoman says that, at the company's request, Haugen sent out a retraction over the same message system and that Amway hasn't heard from P&G about the rumors in years. Haugen himself wasn't available for comment.
The Haugen suit is only the latest measure Procter has taken to quell the wild story (table). But it's a tale--sometimes with new details--that won't let a stake be driven through its heart. In May, P&G was receiving almost 200 calls a day from consumers about it, though the number since has ebbed to 70 to 100 after P&G targeted mailings to churches and media.
Folklorists say the affair's just one example of several "contemporary legends" that focus on business. Remember the one about McDonald's selling worms in its hamburgers? Or the rat in a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Why do such stories crop up? University of Georgia sociology professor Gary Alan Fine, author of a recent book on contemporary legends, notes that many Americans have long mistrusted large companies, whose inner workings are mysterious to them. Adds Bill Ellis, associate professor of American Studies at Penn State University at Hazleton: "There's an implicit belief that for anyone to become really economically powerful, there must be some implicit deal with the forces of evil."
And as Jan Harold Brunvand, a longtime follower of contemporary legends and a professor at the University of Utah, points out, Satan worship at P&G doesn't sound any wackier than much of the stuff on TV talk shows. It's also no more durable than the rumor first known as "the Kmart snake," about the shopper who reaches inside a rolled up oriental rug and is bitten by a cobra. Unfortunately for P&G, such tales just don't seem to die.
A FIENDISH HISTORY
Mass marketer Procter & Gamble has been caught up in the longest exorcism
1980 Rumors swirl that P&G is secretly controlled by cult leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Other murmurs link P&G's moon-and-stars trademark to witchcraft. P&G issues denials.
1982 P&G sues six individuals, including an Amway distributor, to quash rumors that an executive confirmed the company's satanic ties on a TV talk show.
1985 Additional lawsuits; the company decides to pull its trademark from products.
1990 P&G sues a Kansas couple, both Amway distributors, for spreading more satanic rumors. It later wins a $75,000 judgment in the case.
1991 P&G eliminates from its trademark elements rumored to represent the satanic number 666.
1995 P&G sues Amway distributor Randy Haugen.