How Tony the Tiger got caught in the rumour mill

Playground gossip and university rumours have forced cereal giant Kellogg to issue a statement denying that the teenage star of its current UK Frosties campaign is dead. In the ad, the boy leaps from his bed singing a refrain which includes the words “They’re gonna taste great/I can hear the sound of Frosties hitting my plate”. He then dances along a suburban street before rising into the air, accompanied by Tony the Tiger, the brand’s cartoon icon.

Almost as soon as the ad hit screens, Kellogg had to issue an official statement, claiming the ad “has been well received by the vast majority of our customers” and that “initial figures show it is attracting greater interest to the brand”. The statement then continues: “We would also like to take this opportunity to confirm that the lead boy within the advertisement is well and continues to live in his native South Africa.”

The problem facing Kellogg was that almost as soon as the ad started airing, rumours began circulating in school playgrounds and university campuses across the UK that the boy was dead. In different versions of the story, spread mainly on the internet, he was murdered in school because of the ad; committed suicide after being the victim of bullying; and was supposedly dead long before production of the ad was finished. According to the latter version, his appearance in the ad was down to his grieving father, who thought that having his son digitally inserted into an ad for a sugar-coated breakfast cereal was a fitting memorial. (This story claims the son died from cancer.)

Out of control

The case demonstrates two fundamental truths about marketing, one as old as the hills, the second as old as the internet. First, you can never absolutely control your brand. There is always an element outside your control – which resides in consumers’ collective consciousness.

Second, with the rise of the internet, information spreads around the world at light-speed. Blogging and viral marketing are both being seized upon by marketers as wonder-tools: but the flipside is that potentially damaging rumours and gossip spread just as quickly.

Research shows that when it comes to choosing brands to buy, consumers do listen to word of mouth. According to figures from Millward Brown Precis, 63% of UK shoppers turn to friends, neighbours and colleagues for face-to-face advice, while 52% take advice online. Millward Brown Precis chief executive Fergus Hampton says: “Word of mouth is probably more influential then anything else, though it varies from category to category. Companies are just not doing anything like enough to keep on top of what is being said about them.”

Hampton cites a potentially very damaging piece of gossip on the internet at the moment that suggests Cadbury plans to sell its stockpiles of potentially Salmonella-infected chocolate to the Third World. He says such a story, even though demonstrably untrue, is difficult to eradicate.

Devil’s work

Another high-profile example is the rumours that circulated in the 1960s that packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble was controlled by Satanists. The original “evidence” for these claims was the company’s Man in the Moon logo, showing a bearded face and 13 stars. It was said the face was the devil’s, while

13 is the number of witches in a coven. P&G had to change its corporate logo and spend tens of millions of dollars fighting the allegations, which may have been started by smaller, local rivals in US Bible Belt states in an attempt to gain competitive advantage. P&G now provides links from its own website to sites debunking such urban legends, and to Christian sites that support the company.

Such cases show just how much marketers need to be aware of what people are saying about their brands at all times, across all media. If they don’t stay on top of the playground rumour mill, they risk losing even more control over their brands.

Martin Croft

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