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Pierre, Pez Dispensers and Public Relations

Pierre, Pez Dispensers and Public Relations

As a corporate myth, the Pez story was pretty good. But it turns out that it was even better as a way to get ink for what was, in 1997, a fledging company with big ideas.

By Keith Regan
08/28/02 2:09 PM PT

It's one of those stories that everyone loves to tell. EBay, as the legend goes, became a billion-dollar global powerhouse after starting off as a place where Pierre Omidyar's wife could sell and buy Pez dispensers.

A great story. And, as you no doubt know by now, not true. It could have been, but it was merely the fabrication of a public relations whiz who won an award for spreading the story, only to have the truth come out later.

But is there really any harm in bending the truth into a good yarn, especially if it's the kind of rags-to-riches success story that everyone wants to hear? Probably not. Then again, in a day and age when trust in corporations is as precious a commodity as a Giant Santa Claus Pez Dispenser (high bid: US$70), aren't even little white lies more trouble than they're worth?

To Tell the Truth

As a corporate myth, the Pez story was pretty good. But it turns out that it was even better as a way to get ink for what was, in 1997, a fledging company with big ideas.

That's what won Mary Lou Song a merit award from her alma mater, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Apparently, the story so grabbed reporters' attention that they were falling over themselves to give eBay the kind of free publicity that, at the time, the company couldn't even think about buying.

But after Song received her award, the definitive eBay book -- you've been waiting for it, I know -- called "The Perfect Store" came out and debunked the Pez myth for all to see.

Not the End of the World

So the spin, to be gentle about it, was a little exaggerated. Is that the end of the world? No, except that the story painted a picture, one that every reporter or reader who related or read it was all too eager to believe.

Song's tall tale fed directly into the deepest recesses of the human mind, the greedy, dark places where we all think there's a quick and painless way to get rich. If Pierre can do it with Pez, what item laying around the house might net us a few billion in stock options?

Everyone bought the story that rags to riches could happen without anyone breaking a sweat. Why? Because it's exactly what we wanted to hear. Song was just, well, playing the right song. The Pez story just fed the monster one more meal.

Upstanding Citizen

Of course, the real story of eBay's founding is still a compelling one. The company's growth rates are astounding, so who cares how it got there? None of that changes now that the truth has leaked out.

And what of that? My guess is that eBay wanted the truth to circulate before its executives had to confirm the story one more time, fingers crossed firmly behind their backs. Now they can put it behind them and move on.

No doubt, eBay's fans will want to do just that. But eBay has enough critics, including some of its own members, who will want to toss this little "issue" right back at eBay every chance they get.

So, as much as eBay would like this story to fade away, it is firmly ingrained in the history of the Web.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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