Under the Influence

Kentucky Fried rats, exploding kids & other urban brand myths

Urban brand myths like the Kentucky Fried rat, the failed Chevy Nova and the case of the exploding kid live on as assumed facts. But many of the myths you’ve heard and maybe even passed along are actually untrue.
Urban brand myths. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Urban brand myths live on as assumed facts in marketing textbooks, MBA courses, endless business seminars and dinner parties. It's easy to accept rumours as truth because they're usually dramatic and juicy. But many of the myths you've heard and maybe even passed along are actually...untrue.

Brand Myth:
An old lady eating Kentucky Fried Chicken discovers she's actually chewing on a Kentucky Fried Rat. She has a heart attack and dies. Her family sues KFC for millions.

A Kentucky Fried rumour. (CBC)

This rumour resurfaces every decade in a multitude of variations.

One writer has collected 115 different versions of the Kentucky Fried rat urban legend. But that brand myth has inspired many hoaxes and dreams of big payoffs.

In 2009, a plaintiff in Atlanta sued KFC claiming he bit into a Kentucky Fried mouse. KFC maintained it was a hoax, the case went to trial and KFC won the lawsuit.

In 2015, a security guard in Wilmington, California, posted a photo to Facebook of what he claimed was a Kentucky Fried rat found in his box of Kentucky Fried chicken tenders.

He was going to hire a lawyer and seek damages.

When KFC originally contacted the plaintiff, he initially refused to respond. But according to an independent analysis, the deep fried meat was indeed… chicken.

KFC demanded a public apology. It was later declared a hoax.

In all our research, we couldn't find a single case where KFC had lost a lawsuit over this kind of claim, nor could we find a case where a plaintiff was awarded millions by the courts. KFC obviously takes these allegations seriously. A claim like this is incredibly damaging to its brand and reputation.

And a brand myth has lasting implications.

In a survey of people who had heard the story that someone had bitten into a deep fried rat and won a big monetary settlement from KFC, 76% of those people said they believed it.

Proving that some rumours are just too tasty to ignore.

Brand myth:
General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova into a Spanish-speaking country. Unbeknownst to GM, Nova translates to "No Go" and the car spectacularly failed.

The Chevy No-Go. (Chevrolet)
There have been many marketing lessons about big brands marching into foreign countries, not doing their homework, and failing.

This is not one of them.

The original Chevy Nova was launched in the U.S. market in 1962.

Between 1972 and 1978, it was also sold in Mexico and several other Spanish-speaking countries – primarily Venezuela.

The phrase "no va" in Spanish literally does mean "doesn't go." But "no va" and the word "nova" are distinctly different things in that language.

So if the Spanish saw the word "nova" they wouldn't think "no go." They would think the same thing as English-speaking people:  "Nova" roughly means "bright star" in both languages.

General Motors was also well established in Mexico and Venezuela in the 1970's. So when it launched cars there, the Spanish divisions would have handled the naming.

And here's the final pin in the myth: The Nova name didn't negatively affect car sales at all – it sold well in Spanish markets.

As a matter of fact, Venezuelan sales actually surpassed GM's expectations.

And – there was a part two to this brand myth – that GM eventually changed the name of the Nova to the Caribe and the car finally succeeded.

Yes, the Caribe did sell in Mexico – but it was a Volkswagen.

Brand myth:
Little Mikey of LIFE cereal fame died from the explosive effects of mixing Pop Rocks candy with soda pop.

Before hitting the shelves in the mid 70s, Pop Rocks candy were extensively tested and found to be entirely safe for consumption.

But despite the thumbs up from the FDA, wild stories about the perils of Pop Rocks began to spread among kids.

And one rumour in particular really blew up.

It surrounded the cute kid known as Little Mikey who had achieved fame as the picky eater in the famous Life Cereal commercial from the 1970's:

Rumour had it, real life Mikey died when his stomach exploded from an unexpectedly lethal combination of carbonated soda and Pop Rocks.

No one knew Little Mikey's real name. All we knew was that he disappeared from our television sets.

So General Foods began battling the "exploded kid" myth, which started a scant four years after the product was introduced.

They took out full-page ads in 45 publications trying to quell the rumours and wrote 50,000 letters to school principals.

They even sent the Pop Rocks inventor on the road to explain that the candy generated less gas than a half can of soda - inducing nothing more than a hearty, non-life-threatening belch.

So what really happened to Little Mikey?

Well, nothing. In fact, his real name is John Gilchrist. He's now an advertising executive in New York and no part of him has exploded.

Despite all General Foods' efforts (and Mikey's continuous existence), the rumours still abound to this day.

If you check the Pop Rocks FAQ page on their website, the Little Mikey rumour is still the very first thing addressed.

Even though the brand myth has been… exploded.

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Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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