Propagation and Belief

The teller of an urban legend may claim it happened to a friend, which serves to personalize and enhance the power of the narrative. Since people, unconsciously or otherwise, often exaggerate, conflate or edit stories when telling them, urban legends can evolve over time.

Many urban legends depict horrific crimes, contaminated foods or other situations which would affect many people. Anyone believing such stories might feel compelled to warn loved ones.

Many urban legends are essentially extended jokes, told as if they were true events. Others, like tall tales in general, contain a grain of truth. The urban legend that Coca-Cola developed the drink Fanta to sell in Germany without public backlash originated as the actual tale of German Max Keith, who invented the drink and ran Coca-Cola’s operations in Germany during World War II.

Some urban legends are morality tales that depict someone, usually a child, acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead.

Regardless of origins, urban legends typically include one or more common elements: the legend is retold on behalf of the original witness or participant; dire warnings are often given for those who might not heed the advice or lesson contained therein (this is a typical element of many e-mail phishing scams); and it is often touted as “something a friend told me,” while the friend is identified by first name only or not identified at all. One of the classic hallmarks of false urban legends is a lack of specific information regarding the incident, such as names, dates, locations, or similar information.

Persistent urban legends, however unlikely, often maintain at least a degree of plausibility – for instance a serial killer deliberately hiding in the back seat of a car.

One such example since the seventies has been the recurring rumor that the Procter and Gamble Company was associated with Satan worshipers because of details within its nineteenth-century trademark. The legend interrupted the company’s business to the point it stopped using its nineteenth-century trademark.

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