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Rumor Almost Ruins Small Soda Firm : Race relations: A flyer in Harlem said Tropical Fantasy was part of a Ku Klux Klan scheme to 'make you sterile.' The firm fought back with the truth--and won back most of its customers.

July 14, 1991|ARLENE LEVINSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Soda samples were checked for the presence of saltpeter, potassium nitrate, an anaphrodisiac. Investigators visited Brooklyn Bottling. They checked the warehouse, the raw materials area, the production line. Nothing unusual was found.

At Brooklyn Bottling, meanwhile, the situation deteriorated.

Grocers couldn't move the soda. Some shoved unsold bottles to the back of their coolers; others stopped ordering it.

Top Pop, made by Premium Beverage Packers Inc. of Wyomissing, Pa., and A-Treat, made in Allentown, Pa., lost business too. But they depended less on the New York market.

Eric Miller had the most to lose, and he was the angriest. A man proud that his company of 125 workers is staffed largely by minorities, who likes the idea of offering poorer consumers a good deal on soda, he saw the rumor as an absurd attack and set about to stop it.

Miller hired Robin Verges, a public relations consultant and an expert in African-American concerns. Her efforts paid off immediately when New York Mayor David N. Dinkins, a black man, agreed to drink Tropical Fantasy on television.

The news media jumped on the story. The Ku Klux Klan came out with a disclaimer: "The KKK is not in the bottling business," Wizard James Farrands of Sanford, N.C., told a weekly magazine. Editorials in the city's major and minority newspapers raised stern voices against believing hurtful nonsense. Brooklyn Bottling employees met with the PTA and church leaders.

And Brooklyn Bottling, as well as the maker of Top Pop, distributed its own flyers.

"Someone put up a stone wall. We didn't have dynamite, but we have a pick and we're breaking it down, stone by stone," Miller said. "We just went around re-educating and shaming people. Step by step, people are realizing it's a hoax."

Miller also bought a billboard truck to drive around affected areas touting Tropical Fantasy. As summer approached, he gave away free samples. Then he waited for the hot weather. What thirsty kid can resist a bargain?

A month later, stores were refilling their stocks. Near the sodas, customers found photocopies of editorials and a letter from Dinkins promising the sodas were safe.

The wait worked.

"I'd say we got most of our consumers back," Miller could say by mid-June. "But we had three months of horror."

Like the other bottlers hit by the rumor, he believes a jealous competitor planted the story.

"Right now, the economy is so bad, the big boys are as nervous as the little boys," Miller said. The rumor was "racism for economics," he said. "What's more frightening to blacks than the Klan and sterility? If they said I used cheap ingredients, would it concern them?"

Major bottlers deny involvement. A spokesman for Pepsicola West, which serves the region, said no way was his company involved in any rumor.

Bob Lanz at Coca-Cola Bottling of New York said his company checked it out down to the distributors and found no rumormongers. "You don't take any glee," Lanz added, "because it could happen to you."

Miller hired a detective agency to investigate, and the Kings County district attorney's office also looked into it. But the agency quit after reaching only dead ends, and the DA's office came up with nothing.

Rumor experts weren't surprised.

"I have never heard of a commercial rumor being started by a competitor," said Fred Koenig, a social psychologist at Tulane University who is an expert in marketplace rumors.

A competitor could take advantage of a rumor already started, he said, but that's risky. "You don't know if, by the end of the day, that rumor's going to turn on you," Koenig said. "It's like chemical warfare. The wind changes."

Adding to Koenig's skepticism was the fact that the rumor has been spread before, the last time about a fried-chicken franchise said to use a chemical that sterilizes black men.

So where do rumors come from? Why do people spread them? Why are they so powerful? And why would many blacks believe this one in particular?

"Imagine a rumor being like a bullet, and imagine people being like guns," said Ralph Rosnow, a psychologist at Temple University who has written about rumors and gossip. "We load the gun when we're feeling anxious and nervous about something. When people are very anxious about something, they don't worry whether or not it's true."

Spreading rumors, Rosnow said, allows people to share their anxieties.

"Having come from a slavery background, where we were so brutalized for so long, the sense of fear we have as a people is very real," said Lorraine Hale, a psychologist who is president of Hale House Foundation, a philanthropy for drug addicts' babies, women with AIDS and formerly drug-addicted mothers and their children.

"There's a mass paranoia that the objective here is to kill us out, as easily and quickly as possible. We don't articulate it," Hale said, "but we act upon it." This leads to watchfulness and caution and suspicion, enough to question the contents in a soft drink.

Like other blacks interviewed, Robert Johnson, a chemistry professor at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, said the story about tainted soda invoked memories of the Tuskegee Study. Between 1932 and 1972 in Alabama, 600 black men suffering from syphilis went untreated during a U.S. public health study of the effects of the disease.

The soda rumor "makes a person of color leery," Johnson said. "We wouldn't put it past some people."

And still, Miller remains determined to find a culprit.

"To the day I die," he said, "I'm not going to stop until I find out who the hell did it to us."

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