It’s a remarkable story, straining reasonable credulity. The head of a major international corporation goes on the air and on the record with a major broadcaster and reveals their contributions to a national organization of Satanists. What’s more, when asked how he could admit such an incendiary move, he declares “well, there are so few Christians left in America it’s not worth the trouble hiding it any longer.”
This outlandish story could easily have been an expose on Breitbart, or an unhinged screed on a distant relative’s Facebook. Except this story begins in the 80s, as the nation came to grips with a changing social and political world which many conservative communities blamed, perversely, on Satanists.
The roots of the Satanic Panic are complex, a form of mass hysteria that arose from the amassed anxieties of white Christian America in the 1980s, as cultural norms continued to change wildly around them. In the span of just twenty years, pop culture movements of hippies, disco, hard rock and heavy metal had arisen, leaving wide swaths of the country reeling in the wake of their anti-establishment messages. The ascent of these movements became associated with a decline in attendance at houses of worship as well as a de-emphasis on religion in the daily lives of many Americans. For people inclined toward a rigid theocratic view of the world, it was obvious that the hand of dark demonic forces was at work.
And while more salacious stories grabbed the headlines – of subliminal commands to commit suicide in Judas Priest albums and propagandizing dark magic in the pages of Dungeons and Dragons – some pastors saw the dark hand in the pedestrian. In the 1980s, a minister in Minneapolis began alleging that Proctor and Gamble, makers of everything from Bounty paper towels to NyQuil, were in secret an organization dedicated to Satan. The signs were obvious: just look at the company’s logo. What at first might seem to be a stylized “man in the moon” was in fact the devil himself, the tips of the crescent actually twisted horns. On its base, a subtly hidden “666” inverted. And the stars, obviously Satanic pentagrams, of which there were the numerologically significant thirteen, could be shown to connect into a 666 as well. Clearly, Satan was working to corrupt our society through the goods we buy, and all good Christians must fight against this corruption.
These conspiratorial allegations are, of course, ridiculous. The P&G logo dates back to the 1850s, a time when a majority of Americans were illiterate. Having an instantly recognizable image associated with your brand was not only symbolically important as it remains today but commercially necessary, and as the company continued to grow, it retained this image as a matter of pride and continuity. When the rumors began to spread, P&G unsurprisingly ignored them, convinced the consumer population would find the claims obviously absurd.
Until, that is, associates of Amway became involved. One of the most successful “multi-level marketing” companies in America, Amway has built a business on providing individuals with a variety of household goods for sale, while encouraging its sales associates to enlist friends and acquaintances to sell products, funneling a share of profits upwards. While the FTC in the 1970s differentiated Amway’s practices from those of a legally defined pyramid scheme, the multi-level system places strong incentives on associates to offload purchased products onto their nominal employees in order to recoup costs from their purchase to the parent company. In the mid 90s, this pressure drove two associates to spread a voicemail, repeating a false story about the CEO of Proctor and Gamble outing himself on national television as a Satanist.
That they would appeal to a sense of persecution, a feeling that their community of faith was under siege by Satan himself, is not surprising. Amway distributors frequently court people with a strong faith (see here for one example), and they are not the only ones. Prosperity Gospel may be the most garish and recognizable form, but scam artists have frequently exploited an assumed sense of trustworthiness that a shared religious identification helps to conjure and a common struggle against an external foe can provide. In 2012 a Chandler, Arizona man named Edward Purvis solicited donations from church group elders and their communities for his non-profit ministry. The nearly $11 million that he collected, he used himself for houses, cars, and gambling debts.
For those that follow conspiracy theories, it is remarkable to have seen the rate of change in how these stories are propagated. The stereotype of the fanatic handing out leaflets containing a poorly argued tract may still be familiar to anyone who has received a flyer from Tony Alamo’s church on the MTA. Other systems have been used as well, amateur radio and direct mail being particularly popular, the latter favored by noted conspiracy theorist Lyndon Larouche. More powerful mass market mediums, especially television, remained beyond the reach of these rather fringe groups. And then along came the internet. Soon, communities of like-minded people could share their obsessions free from critical examination. From “chemtrails” to “reptoids,” stories of secret cabals bent on undermining a god-fearing society could – and do – thrive. Long after the initial voice mail appeals had been cancelled, stories of hidden Satanic plots in the packaging of Proctor and Gamble products could still be found in online message boards or email chains.
Proctor and Gamble eventually did take the individuals responsible to court, after which they were awarded $19.25 million in 2007. Amway denies involvement in the actions, and certainly no legal culpability has been proven, though this did not stop them from suing Proctor and Gamble in return, claiming P&G had spread malicious rumors of Amway’s active involvement in their seller’s voicemail campaign. This author does not accuse Amway itself of spreading these rumors, but we do not need to see a directive from the company to conclude that a business culture that exploits the desire for community and trust in religious faith could conceivably, if not produce, then certainly not wish to restrain or temper accusations like those levels against P&G. When magical thinking is encouraged, people looking to enrich themselves will exploit fears of isolation, of persecution and irrelevancy, to harness that fervor in pursuit of profit.
Exploiting fears of well-intentioned believers in an effort to exploit their labor for personal gain is disparaged as a great evil in many religions and stands in violation of the first Fundamental Tenet of The Satanic Temple. Sometimes these beliefs are sincerely held, but too often they get leveraged for financial gain, and always at the expense of someone. At TST, we stand opposed to people who would cynically exploit these fears, and seek to expose all groups that would attempt to manipulate others with conspiracy theories through our work at Grey Faction.