Corporate Redemption Rumors
Chapters 10-11 of Manufacturing Tales

Chapter 10: Corporate Beneficence

Redemption rumors refer to rumors that corporations will exchange product packaging material (can tabs, cigarette packages, etc.) for medical equipment (wheelchairs, iron lungs, dialysis machines, etc.) donated to hospitals/individuals. These rumors differ from typical rumors about corporations in that they appear to paint the corporations in a positive light.

The rumors are based on coupon and packaging redemption practices of corporations, which go back almost 200 years. An example is the original packaged soap in the 1850's which got you a lithograph for 25 soap wrappers.

The big problem with the rumors is that they are not tied to the companies that actually have such programs, so that they motivate people to collect huge number of bottle caps and the like, and then they bring them to some company who says "What's all this?" and "No, we won't donate hundreds of thousands of dollars because you brought us a ton of trash". This then causes tremendous ill-will on the part of consumers.

Which companies are actually targeted? The biggest ones are soft drinks, beer, cigarettes, and tea. Some things these products have in common:

  1. Come in easily saved packages
  2. Consumed in large quantities
  3. Caffeine, sugar, alcohol and nicotine are often seen as harmful, sinful, or junky

Why do people spend all this energy? It is a cognitively easy way to help others. They become part of a collective working towards a good goal, which is very satisfying.

Who are the medical victims that the medical equipment is intended for? Typically a little girl or boy. Sometimes, a little black girl.

Analysis of the Content of the Rumors

Rumors presumably reflect the beliefs, fears, values of the people who spread them.

The redemption rumors are consistent with a notion that corporations have the means and the desire to help individuals in need. Given the kinds or organizations that are said to do this, it seems possible that it is not so much that organizations are inherently nice, but that they owe the community these things, either as pennance for selling bad things or simply for taking so much profit from the people.

In addition, there is that sense of irony or justice that we often see in rumors: the corporations that endanger people's health must work to promote their health in other ways, to "balance things out".

Question: who is being redeemed? Is it the consumer or the company? The text says it is the consumer (who feels guilty for buying junk products and littering the environment). But I wonder if it isn't the corporation that sells this bad stuff which is being redeemed. Through the exchange program, they help clean up the environment, and undo the negative effects of their actions.

Chapter 11: Ostension

Ostension refers to the process by which people act out rumors they have heard. The idea is similar to copycat murders. In the context of mercantile legends, this is where an organization hears this rumor, and decides to create a similar program. So Ronald McDonald House asks volunteers to collect aluminum, which it then sells to recycling companies. But notice that no corporate beneficence is involved in this real life example: the aluminum is actually sold. It is not a grant by a soft drink company.

Hence, certain kinds of tales can create behavior, which in turn reinforces the rumors. The fact that some companies do or have had redemption programs fuels the rumors, which in turn causes additional companies to have some kind of similar program.


One -- slightly romanticized -- way to think about rumors, legends, tales, gossip etc. is to regard them as the idle thoughts of a collective brain. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that 'culture is personality writ large'. Many people have described organizations as distributed intelligence systems --- in effect, giant brains in which people and their social ties play the part of interlinked neurons. By analyzing both the content and the trajectories of rumors, we come to understand the collective mind: the organizational culture. We also realize that these thoughts determine the behavior of these systems, just as an individual's behavior is determined by their thoughts.

Whether we want to view rumors as thoughts in a giant brain or not, it is certainly clear that they are affected by the culture and social structure in which they are embedded. Rumors are spread through social networks, not broadcast to all people simultaneously. Because rumors are propositions about the world (that is, they represent potential truths) the content of rumors reflects plausibility and interest. By examining what is plausible we can understand some of the tacit attitudes and understandings that people in a given culture/structure hold, even if they are not aware of it themselves. Hence, rumors act as a kind of window into a culture or social system.

In all social systems, there is an iterative process of structuration by which the system affects the individuals, and the individuals affect the system. For example, consider the film industry. Neophytes entering the industry face powerful forces of socialization and selection whereby new members are taught to think like everyone else (i.e., they acquire competencies and understandings about how things work), and those that can't be molded are spit out. To the extent that these people learn their lessons well and fully embody the highest principles of their culture, they acquire status. With status they are able to influence others and events, which allows them to change or uphold the status quo. They are also put in positions in which they socialize and select new members, thereby determining the character of the next generation.

Rumors, like all communications, play a part in this structuration process. The simple spread of information knits together people into a group that shares knowledge about certain things. In addition, the content of what is shared often carries with it underlying messages about how to react to certain things. Often, there is a moral: if you do this, bad things will happen. Or a warning: things are not what they seem. Sometimes they just communicate an attitude, such as a certain posture towards large organizations. Rumors are part of the socialization process.