BOSTON (MainStreet) -- The bigger the company -- the more iconic the brand -- the more persistently it is dogged by rumor and conspiracy theories.
Ranging from the gross and absurd to matters only resolved through litigation, false claims against companies have traditionally been spread by word of mouth -- somehow traveling coast-to-coast via a friend who told a friend who told two friends, etc.
In more recent years, email, newsgroups and Web sites have done the damaging dirty work, leading sites such as Snopes.com to serve as go-to sources for debunking.
We took a look at 10 brands that have faced ongoing viral slander:
Coca-Cola (Stock Quote: KO) has even had to include a section on its Web site to push back against the many falsehoods it has been targeted with over the years.
Among the denials: Coke does not contain a bug-based dye, alcohol or pork; no one has ever died from drinking Diet Coke while eating Mentos; at no point in its history was the beverage green; and adding MSG to Coke is not an aphrodisiac.
The company is not tied to the Mormon religion, nor has it funded campaigns against Palestinians and Muslims.
As for those pro-Israel, anti-Palestine rumors, according to the company: "We believe the origins of this rumor date back to 1967, when the Arab League pronounced a boycott against companies for conducting business in Israel, following the tensions in the Middle East. The Coca-Cola Co. and its bottling partners were present in many Arab and Muslim countries before Coca-Cola was introduced in Israel and came back to the Arab countries as soon as the boycott was lifted."
Do its aluminum cans contribute to the onset of Alzheimer's Disease? Not likely, the company says. Soft drinks canned in aluminum actually contain only trace amounts of the metal because the inner surface of the can is lacquered, minimizing the chance of aluminum from the can dissolving into the beverage, it says, suggesting that "an individual would have to drink about 5,000 12-ounce cans to get the same amount of aluminum as from one typical aluminum hydroxide-based antacid tablet."
It also cites the Alzheimer's Association: "There is no proof that aluminum causes Alzheimer's disease."
In 1991, Kentucky Fried Chicken began marketing itself as KFC.
The move, intended to broaden he perception of its menu and purge the negative health associations of the word "fried," had the unintended -- and somewhat delayed -- consequence of heating up the rumor mill.
An email widely circulated years after the name change offers a horrific -- and false -- explanation for what's filing all those buckets. It reads, in part:
"The reason why they call it KFC is because they cannot use the word chicken anymore. Why? KFC does not use real chickens. They actually use genetically manipulated organisms. These so called 'chickens' are 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. Their bone structure is dramatically shrunk to get more meat out of them. This is great for KFC because they do not have to pay so much for their production costs. There is no more plucking of the feathers or the removal of the beaks and feet."
The name change, the message says, was necessitated by these freakish farm animals.
"The government has told them to change all of their menus so they do not say chicken anywhere," it says.
The email claims to back up its claim with research by the University of New Hampshire (the school is firm in its denial of ever making any such claim).
A variation of the creepy chicken claim sounds more like a joke that was taken seriously -- that KFC has bred a six-legged chicken to up the meat production per bird.
McDonald's (Stock Quote: MCD) is another frequent target of false claims that keep re-emerging.
So, no, the apple pies are not actually made from pears, the milkshakes do contain milk and not "Styrofoam balls added for texture" or cow eyeballs as a thickener. The McFlurry does not contain bird feathers, and burgers, despite what junior high kids may whisper, do not include worm meat.
Procter & Gamble
Time and time again Procter & Gamble (Stock Quote: PG) has had to defend itself against accusations it is a front for Satanists.
The devil is in the details of the company logo, the oft-relayed claim says. The familiar, human-faced half-moon symbol, accompanied with 13 stars, is said to be a mark of the devil and incorporates the supposedly evil number 666.
A version of the rumor also claims a top executive was unusually forthright during a talk show interview and fessed up to the whole worshiping-Lucifer thing. He punctuated the confession to the host (the name of which has changed over the years to include Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael and Oprah) with the statement: "There are not enough Christians in the United States to make a difference."
Procter & Gamble isn't the only company to be slandered with claimed ties to the Church of Satan; McDonald's and Liz Claiborne have had to fight similar rumors.
Lucent Technologies (Stock Quote: ALU) inflamed evangelicals for its vaguely devilish name and a logo fanatics compare to a fiery circle of Hell. Apple's (Stock Quote: AAPL) company logo, an apple with a bite taken out of it, has been compared to the forbidden fruit of knowledge the serpent offered Adam and Eve.
The Procter & Gamble rumors are unique in that they led to a series of lawsuits against a competitor. A volley of lawsuits about the accusations began in 1997 between P&G and Amway, a company that has long sold household items beauty care products and nutrition supplements through a network of independent distributors.
In its initial suit, P&G claimed Amway distributors spread the rumor. Amway countered with a suit that said P&G funded a "rogue Web site" that "foments hate rhetoric about Amway, its employees and its distributors" and referred to the company as "a cult." It also claimed P&G "hatched a plan to make Amway the publicity scapegoat for the Satanism rumor."
Amway's defense, according to court filings, is that the the rumor was "running rampant in southern Florida and Houston, Texas" before any distributor repeated the rumor via company voice mail in late April 1995. It did admit that a distributor, believing the rumor to be true, forwarded the accusation to about 20 other distributors. A retraction was issued at the company's urging.
"If you hear any rumors saying anything to the effect that they are practicing Satanism and their symbols on their products are Satanic, then it is absolutely, 100% false," the distributor wrote. "We don't want any bad rumors about any competitor or noncompetitors on any company anywhere ever going out from us."
Nevertheless, in 2007, P&G won a jury award of $19.3 million in the suit against four former Amway distributors.
Does Starbucks (Stock Quote: SBUX) hate the military?
A vicious bit of hate mail has been hitting inboxes for years describing how the company snubbed marines.
The email reads in part: "Recently Marines over in Iraq ... wrote to Starbucks because they wanted to let them know how much they liked their coffee and try to score some free coffee grounds. Starbucks wrote back telling the Marines thanks for their support in their business, but that they don't support the war and anyone in it and that they won't send them the coffee."
The letter, calling for a Starbucks boycott for a made-up conflict, is signed by what turned out to be an actual Marine. He has, however, denied writing the letter.
A very similar letter later lambasted Oscar Mayer and, by extension, parent company Kraft (Stock Quote: KFT).
"Recently Marines in Iraq wrote to Oscar Meyer because they wanted to let them know how much they liked their hot dogs and to request that they send some of it to the troops there," it reads, relaying the company's refusal -- which, tellingly, is almost a word-for-word match for the apocryphal response from the coffee company.
Bank of America
As if there aren't enough reasons consumers have found to take issue with Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC), it is the target of a false rumor spread by email.
The email relays an alleged conversation between an upset customer and a bank official.
"I want to cancel my account. I don't want to do business with you any longer," the customer says. "You're giving credit to illegal immigrants and I don't think it's right. I'm taking my business elsewhere."
When the bank employee asks for a Social Security number to close the account, the customer refuses: "Why should I give you my Social Security number? The reason I'm closing my account is that your bank is issuing credit cards to illegal immigrants who don't have Social Security numbers."
He then asks whether the bank would ask an illegal immigrant for a Social Security number, when it knows they don't have one.
The employee says that they wouldn't ask because they "would have pressed '2' to speak in Spanish and we don't ask for that information when someone is calling in on the Spanish line."
The sordid tale is no more than a work of creative fiction.
Taco Bell has occasionally had to go on the offensive against accusations its meat products are less than pure.
In one urban legend that pops up from time to time, a friend of a friend of a friend goes to a dentist with swollen, aching gums. The cause? cockroach eggs stuck in her gums, an unwanted consequence of critters in the Taco Bell beef.
In another variation, the eggs are lodged in a poor victim's throat; yet another has the eggs miraculously surviving being cooked, chewed and digested to turn the victim's entire body into a bug incubator.
None of the above has ever happened.
Taco Bell managed to turn the table on a less dramatic, but more public attack on the quality of its beef.
Earlier this year, Alabama law firm Beasley Allen facilitated a class-action suit against Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands (Stock Quote: YUM), claiming its "seasoned beef" contained a mere 36% beef and was mostly a variety of fillers.
Taco Bell responded with a sweeping ad campaign that defended its beef, calling it 100% pure and USDA inspected, albeit diluted with 12% of various seasonings, spices and binders. The suit was later dropped.
The maker of bakery products has long faced rumors it is owned by the Unification Church, whose adherents are derisively called "moonies" because it was founded by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
The company is actually a privately owned subsidiary of Bimbo Bakeries, and has also been owned by Warner-Lambert and General Foods/Kraft. (Isn't being owned by Bimbo a good enough substitute for fears of cultists baking the doughnuts?)
Procter & Gamble has also had to quash claims that it was owned by the Unification Church.
If you grew up in the 1970s or '80s, odds are that you paused once in a while before popping a piece of gum in your mouth.
Spread virally by schoolchildren looking for a gross-out, rumors said Bubble Yum -- owned by Life Savers at the time, now by Hershey (Stock Quote: HSY) -- contained a heaping dose of spider eggs.
That preposterous idea gained traction right around the time that many believed that Mikey, the kid from old Life cereal commercials, died because his stomach exploded after swallowing a mix of Pop Rocks and soda.
Its not easy to be the "happiest place on earth" when life can be so cruel.
That may explain why so many rumors and conspiracy theories abound about the Magic Kingdom. Ever see a Dixieland jazz band march through the park, pushing a cart? The rumor-mongers will tell you it is the top secret protocol for hauling a deceased patron off the premises.
The granddaddy of all company legends is the final disposition of the late Walt Disney. Despite constant denials by Disney (Stock Quote: DIS), many believe he was cryogenically frozen, his preserved body stashed somewhere in one of the parks.
The reality: He was cremated, and his headstone is at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
One rumor that is true is that, yes, there is indeed a secret, high-rollers club hidden away at Disneyland. Club 33, a membership-only hideaway, is hidden among the fake storefronts of the park's New Orleans Square.
The club contains a gourmet restaurant, full bar and a variety of lavish perks for those lucky enough to score a membership.
Sometimes companies can use non-true information to their benefit, like with company spokespeople. Check out MainStreet's roundup of 7 Fake Executives at Real Companies to see how it's done!