The Telephone Game

“I heard that…,” “She told me…,” and “Don’t tell anyone, but…” are all phrases we’ve heard and probably used. I suspect rumors and gossip have played a role in conversation and relationships since we started sharing ideas. At the beginning, maybe rumors played a role in survival: “I heard the best hunting happens in the woods just past the river.” Equal amounts of gossip about personal behavior probably existed too. “She told me he dragged another woman into his cave while Sally was visiting relatives.” You get the idea.

Now we live in a time where rumors and gossip can spread beyond hearing range in seconds and travel around the world. The recent post on Apple’s blog about the 10 biggest Apple rumors that weren’t true (link) got me thinking about the impact of rumors in general. Thoreau considered rumors rubbish:

Not without a slight shudder at the danger, I often perceive how near I had come to admitting into my mind the details of some trivial affair,—the news of the street; and I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,—to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. (link)

In spite of Thoreau lack of interest in “some trivial affair,” rumors and their consequences, are yet another reminder that words have power. Rumors can trigger stock sell offs or buying frenzies. Rumors can destroy politicians or lift a candidate past his competition.

Rumors’ Big Price Tag

A recent court decision ordered four former Amway distributors to pay $19.24 million to P&G for spreading Satanism rumors in the 80s and 90s:

“Rumors had begun circulating as early as 1981 that the company’s logo—a bearded, crescent man-in-moon looking over a field of 13 stars—was a symbol of Satanism.

The company alleged that Amway Corp. distributors revived those rumors in 1995, using a voice mail system to tell thousands of customers that part of Procter & Gamble profits went to satanic cults.” (link)

In spite of the potential harm, can rumors play a valid role in personal and professional lives? Think about viral marketing. Doesn’t it rely on rumors and information passing from person to person “about how the world works?” Anytime rumors are brought up, I’m reminded of the telephone game.

Playing the Game

For you sheltered individuals, the idea is simple: you form a line, someone makes up a phrase, and the phrase is whispered from one person to the next, down the line. The punch line? The final phrase as heard by the last person compared to the original phrase that started the game. Usually, there’s little resemblance between the start and end, it’s good for a laugh.

We hear the terms “word-of-mouth” and “viral” marketing a lot lately. (See Rachel’s post on “Is Fake the New Real? for a great example of one of the gray areas in advertising.) But what are companies accomplishing with these campaigns? Do companies, and individuals, take a risk relying on a bigger version of the telephone game to promote their ideas?

Losing Control

Once the idea is released, you can’t get it back. How do you combat an idea once it takes root, especially if it’s the wrong version? Think about how many rumors, both true and false, Snopes.com has compiled on its site. One whole category is devoted to Coke lore. The majority of the rumors are listed as false, but you know they’re still floating around, believed by some. And this site is hardly the only rumor haven.
I’m actually a big believer in viral (Seth Godin’s ideavirus actually makes the concept applicable) or word-of-mouth (shudder from over-usage) , but I hesitate to say it’s a one-size-fits-all tool. Like most tools created on the fringes, adoption by the mainstream can leave me cringing. And in an effort to be heard, I question the lengths companies will go to to generate a viral effort (remember Sony’s PSP Christmas nightmare).

I suspect the rumor-like foundation of viral marketing isn’t fully appreciated or understood by the instigators of many campaigns. And I’ve heard that if people can’t trust what they see, can’t trust what they hear, then the “ideavirus” loses its power. Here’s hoping the lights don’t go out.



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May 2007
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