Toward the end of the summer of 1978, my mother-in-law said she had heard a new rumor about a hamburger chain: A story going around Chattanooga, Tennesse, alleged that Wendy's put red worms in their hamburgers!
Contamination rumors are fairly common occurrences in the food and beverage industries. They often sound silly and seem merely bothersome, but they can be devastating, as Wendy's well knew. The first inquiring phone call was made to Wendy's on August 15th. The caller said that the worm story had appeared on the television program 20/20
. As the calls poured in, however, the name of the television program involved changed from week to week. Sometimes it was 20/20
, sometimes 60 Minutes
Very early in this rumor series, a woman called Wendy's main office to say that her husband saw a program (20/20
) on which appeared representatives from Wendy's and McDonald's hamburger chains. The Wendy's people, she said, admitted to putting worms in their hamburgers, but the McDonald's spokesmen were noncommittal. Wendy's was the main target of the worm rumor, with McDonald's, Burger Chef, and Burger King named from time to time.
After Labor Day, the Wendy's worm rumors became even stronger in the Chattanooga area and included adjoining parts of Georgia. One whole section of Atlanta was affected. In desperation, Wendy's Chattanooga people demanded that the head office do something. Steve Samons of Wendy's decided to go public, while Doug Timberlake of McDonald's opted to
"lie in the weeds" and see how Wendy's made out. A television newx conference was scheduled for September 15th. It was to feature a representative of the government meat inspection office in that region who would point out that nothing was added to the ground beef at Wendy's or at any other fast-food chain. For some reason, he did not show up, so the production became exclusively Wendy's, who denied all and made statements to exonerate themselves. After that effort, they were never again part of the rumor scene.
From then on the rumor involved McDonald's. It spread out from Chattanooga and for a while seemed to follow Interstate 75, over to Atlanta, up to Ohio. Doug Timberlake said that when it reached Indiana and Ohio, it really flared up.
McDonald's response was to deal with the rumor locally, denying it immediately, getting names and sending out letters, and passing out literature. It just so happened that McDonald's had an illustrated promotion press kit, featuring the high quality of ingredients that went into their burgers — "Nothing but 100% pure United States Government-inspected ground beef," and so forth. These materials were distributed to franchise owners in the affected areas and guidelines were laid down. If the literature did not seem to quell the rumors, it was recommended that they start a small, local advertising campaign stressing quality of products, with no specific mention of the rumor. If that failed to work, they were told to go to the local press as a last resort. In no case, however, were they to use the word worm
. Managers who called to ask questions were told what to do "just in case."
Then things turned scorching hot in Ohio, Tennessee, and Georgia. It wasn't even necessary for a person to find the rumor credible in order for it to affect his behavior. Just the thought in the back of one's mind of worms in hamburgers was enough to steer one to a pizza parlor. As Doug Timberlake said, "The rumor was hitting at the bottom line. It was seriously affecting sales in certain areas, and these kinds of losses could not be sustained for a very long period. The affected franchises were hurting; their operations were getting badly mauled."
It was decided to hold a press conference in Atlanta. Timberlake was aware that "going public" would make many people aware of the rumor who had never heard it before. Public relations people often are leery of talking directly about a rumor problem or referring to rumors even indirectly, because they believe that such tactics spread rumor even more. On the other hand, an emphatic public statement possibly could immunize people from the effects of the rumor when they did hear it, as well as set the record straight for those who had already heard it. On November 23rd a national press conference was held in Atlanta in which the rumor about "protein additives" was denied. The "100% U.S. Government-inspected beef" position was re-asserted, and of course the word "worm" was never mentioned. A follow-up nationwide advertising campaign was launched in which color photographs of the product, with captions, celebrated its pure, uncontaminated ingredients. The "extinguishers" went into effect, and shortly thereafter the rumor was quenched.