Even if you plan to lay off employees, you're probably not handing out real pink slips. No known company has ever handed anybody an actual pink slip.
Peter Liebhold, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, has been searching for the origins of the term for over a decade. So far, he's had no luck. The term is used in a novel as early as 1915, but there's no historical record of an actual pink dismissal form.
Why do such urban legends spread in the business world? "Plausibility is a measure of [the story's] art," says John Llewellyn, an associate communication professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who helped debunk the myth that Procter & Gamble's logo promoted Satanism. "Even when you explain that the story is false, a lot of people say, 'Well, it ought to be true.' "
Which is why you've heard that in the 1960s, when General Motors began marketing the Chevy Nova in Mexico, not one car sold. GM executives were perplexed until they learned that "Nova" means "No go" in Spanish.
And that three years ago, a woman sampled a cookie in the restaurant of a Neiman Marcus store. She was told she could buy the recipe for two-fifty. When she got the bill, it was for a nonrefundable $250. The irate woman e-mailed the recipe to thousands of people for free.
Great stories. Except they're not true. In fact, the Chevy Nova has always sold well in Mexico, and versions of the cookie tale have been circulating since the 1940s.
And then there's www.thehungersite.com. You may have received e-mail alerting you to the fact that if you visit the Web site, one cup of food will be donated to poor people. Riiiiiiight. Except the site is sponsored by the United Nations, and the story is true. It may be the only urban legend that's worth telling.
- National Museum Of American History, MRC 628, National Museum Of American History, Washington, DC 20560