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

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 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

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
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
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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Trivia Geek’s online journal of rants, opinions, crazy ideas, half-baked
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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

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

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.