After Hours

Geek Trivia: After-the-fact or fiction

What famous financial institution created a high-end product based on an urban legend?

We all know that truth is often stranger than fiction, but what about when fiction—specifically an urban legend—begets truth? Case in point: The infamous Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe, a product developed in direct response to an untrue urban legend. Here's how it all went down.

Those of us who remember the days before anything resembling a decent spam filter have seen more than our fair share of crappy e-mail chain letters. And odds are good that at least one of them recounted the story of an unsuspecting consumer who, dazzled by the deliciousness of a chocolate chip cookie purchased at a Neiman-Marcus department store restaurant, asked for a copy of the recipe.

The store clerk informed this ostensible customer that the company didn't give the recipe away; however, she could buy it for the reasonable sum of "two-fifty." The customer then simply asked that they add the charge to her restaurant tab and went on with her day, content in the knowledge that she could bake her own batch of the delightful cookies at will.

Fast-forward to when our fictitious customer received a copy of her credit card statement and discovered that the "two-fifty" price was $250—not $2.50. (What's a couple of orders of magnitude between friends, right?) Outraged at the cost and Neiman-Marcus' refusal to refund the price, the woman scorned sets out to publish the prized recipe on the Internet, thus irreversibly devaluing the supposedly precious cookie formula.

Some version of this tale reached untold numbers of inboxes in the 1990s, skewering Neiman-Marcus's public image all the while. Too bad the whole story is rubbish: In fact, it's only the latest incarnation of an "overcharged for a recipe" old wives' tale that has been around since at least the 1940s.

In truth, Neiman-Marcus didn't sell cookies or recipes until well after this Internet myth began circulating. However, that didn't stop the story from impacting public perception of the store.

So, deciding to fight fire with fire, Neiman-Marcus actually came up with a chocolate chip cookie recipe, began selling the cookies in its stores and restaurants, and—here's the smart PR part—now gives a free copy of the recipe to anyone who asks for it (or about the legend, for that matter).

While the Neiman-Marcus incident is a fine example of savvy public relations, it's not the only case of a persistent urban legend leading to some insightful product development. In fact, one world-famous financial institution went so far as to create a product not as a means of squashing a harmful rumor, but to turn a too-good-to-be-true urban legend into a prestigious reality.

WHAT FAMOUS FINANCIAL INSTITUTION CREATED A HIGH-END PRODUCT BASED ON AN URBAN LEGEND?

What famous financial institution based a highly prestigious product on an urban legend, turning too-good-to-be-true folklore into a PR-savvy fact?

The institution in question is none other than American Express, which created an "ultimate" no-limit credit card in response to pervasive rumors—Internet and otherwise—that such a card already existed. If the online grapevine has already done your viral marketing for you, why not retroactively create the appropriate product and take advantage of the free publicity?

The rumor, in its various forms, suggested that American Express offered a level of credit above its Platinum card, which would let its extremely exclusive cardholders purchase virtually anything—from military aircraft to one-of-a-kind movie props to relics from the Holy Land. The so-called "black card" made impossible purchases possible, which is probably what made the urban legend so persistent.

The Wall Street Journal likely didn't help matters when it ran a story in 1988 about the use of AmEx-issued identification cards. The extraordinarily wealthy could use those cards to vouch for the cashing of absurdly high-value checks—for example, if a multimillionaire AmEx account holder needed some quick scratch for the Monte Carlo roulette tables.

In any case, American Express began issuing its black Centurion Card in 1999, offering virtual no-limit credit to cardholders. The catch? The Centurion Card is invitation-only—you can't apply for it.

If you qualify for the Centurion—for example, you're a U.S.-based AmEx Platinum cardholder who charges at least $250,000 annually and won't blink at a $2,500 annual fee—American Express will contact you. Centurion Cards issued to cardholders outside the United States meet varying qualification requirements, and American Express isn't entirely forthcoming about all of the Centurion's costs or benefits, if only to keep up the mysterious allure.

Alas, while legend inspired the Centurion, its reality-based success has inspired a host of competitors. In recent years, MasterCard has issued a similarly elite-and-black Signia Card, and Citibank has a near-equivalent Ultima Card.

This quiet up-market arms race has inspired a new round of rumors, including one that claims AmEx will unveil a Titanium Centurion Card sometime this year—created from actual titanium, rather than plastic. That's not just good marketing, people, that's great Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the February 1 edition of Geek Trivia, "Men of Mystery (Science Theater 3000)." TechRepublic member Scott.metter disputed my contention that Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) aired for 15 years.

"According to the official MST3K Web site, the show only had 11 seasons—from 1988 [to] 1999. I suspect the episodes shown after Season 10 (the first season was called Season Zero) were merely reruns."

You're quite right, dear reader. I wasn't referring to 15 fully produced seasons—I was merely highlighting that the show appeared on television for 15 years. Today, MST3K is available only on DVD and video; not even syndicated reruns appear on television.

The last original MST3K episode first aired on the Sci Fi Channel on Sept. 12, 1999. Hope that helps clear things up—and that you'll keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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