Why Urban Legends Become Legends

What Makes a Message Immortal?

  • Is Walt Disney’s body kept in cryonic storage?
  • Does McDonald’s buy their beef from a company called 100% Beef so they can claim they use “100% Beef” in their burgers?
  • Did an attorney really use the “Twinkie Defense” to beat his client’s murder charge?

These are some popular urban legends featured on the myth-busting website Snopes.com. We’ve all heard the classics … “A man wakes up in a tub full of ice …” But how do so many untrue stories survive in a society of skeptics? Why do we need a website like Snopes.com to help us separate the “true” from the “false”? 

It’s because good urban legends, the ones that never seem to die, share some important characteristics that, if properly applied, can make a message almost immortal.

  • Details. Details add credibility, and a good urban legend is chock full of them. An effective storyteller includes names, real places, and vivid details to overwhelm the audience’s doubt. That’s why we at Smith generally recommend that clients back up their key messages with examples and facts … in addition to communicating truthfully.
  • Credible Source. Whether we get it through email or hear it at the office water cooler, an urban legend often reaches us through someone we personally know … and why would someone we know lie to us? If you have a message to deliver, be sure it comes from someone the audience trusts.
  • Relevance. “The legends we tell reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views,” says Snopes.com. In other words, the moral of the story is something we can relate to; it means something to us. Often, even the details in these legends are updated with each retelling to keep them contemporary and recognizable. Know your audience and make your message relevant to them.
  • Story. Good urban legends are good stories. They have characters, tension and action. Storytelling is a useful tool for connecting with an audience emotionally, and a good storyteller will enhance the message’s effectiveness. Good stories are also more memorable, which means they are more likely to be retold or, in the contemporary parlance, go viral.
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