We Fact-Checked Snapple's 'Real Facts'

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Carolynn Primeau/Flickr

Of course a duck’s quack echoes.

But claims to the contrary are so often repeated that the BBC has aired audio proof of the echo, Mythbusters has investigated the acoustics of a quack’s reverberations, and others still have uploaded Internet videos of waterfowl in sound studios selected to amplify the effect.

No matter. The myth persists. It’s the kind of claim that's repeated as fact but shared like superstition—forwarded in chain emails, published and republished among ZOMG-mindblowing facts, even printed on the cool undersides of bottle caps.

Another “Real Fact” of dubious veracity (jeremyfoo/Flickr)

“Real Facts,” they’re called. And though the quotation marks are Snapple’s, not mine, they’re fitting.

Since 2002, the tea maker has been slinging bottle-cap factoids. Some are true, some are outright false, and plenty others are incomplete or ambiguous to the point of absurdity. But it’s easy to pluck out the spurious ones with a search engine and the right kind of bullshit detector.

“Real Fact” #70 claims “Caller ID is illegal in California.” Wrong. And it takes all of 30 seconds to find this on the FAQ section of the California Public Utilities Commission's website: “Is Caller ID legal? Yes, it is.”

We’re just getting started.

Elephants actually sleep three to seven hours a night, not two (#35), according to the San Diego Zoo. The Statue of Liberty wasn't the first electric lighthouse (#179); that distinction belongs to the Souter Lighthouse, according to the UK National Trust. And the average American doesn't walk 18,000 steps a day (#89), not even close. The real tally is more like 5,116 steps, according to a recent study.

Other “Real Facts” are misleading or outdated. A mosquito doesn’t really have “47 teeth” (#50); it has a serrated proboscis — the sharp tube used to suck blood. Pennsylvania isn’t really misspelled on the Liberty Bell (#300) because “Pensylvania” was an accepted spelling in the 18th century, according to the National Park Service. And while the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows (#85), it’s not necessarily because she was painted that way. They just eroded, some art historians now believe.

Plus, it's been nearly two decades since the world's largest pumpkin weighed in at 1,061 pounds (#209) in 1996. Last year's record-setting pumpkin grew to be nearly twice as heavy, clocking in at more than a ton, according to the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth.

“We go through a process every year of looking over the facts,” Snapple's vice president of marketing, David Falk, told me when I asked him about the discrepancy. “If a bigger pumpkin was created, we evaluate and see if that makes sense.”

Though Falk says some “Real Facts” have been retired, it's not clear from the website which ones are no longer in circulation.

There are even contradictions. Snapple claims in separate “Real Facts” that both Manhattan (#399) and Philadelphia (#662) were the first capital of the United States. (Really, the U.S. Senate explains, the first Continental Congress met in Philly and the first Congress under the U.S. Constitution met in New York.)

Murkier still are the claims that are simply unverifiable, like the vague idea that “grapes are the most popular fruit in the world,” (#371) or that the “most common name for a pet goldfish is ‘Jaws.’” (#471)

All this could seem a diabolical marketing ploy by Snapple: Present something as fact but make it just outlandish enough to spark doubt so your consumer spends that much more time engaging with your product.

But that's not what they’re doing. At least, not according to Snapple.

“They are real facts, and we have teams here that fact-check everything,” Falk told me. “We go through a pretty vigorous process.”

Pretty vigorous? Google “Did Thomas Jefferson invent hangers” (#868) and you're one click away from this top-result Monticello website: “Claims that Thomas Jefferson invented the clothes hanger are unfounded.”

Debunking the idea that San Francisco cable cars are “the only mobile national monument” (#23) was as simple as sending a single email.

“It depends on what you mean by mobile. And it's not a monument,” National Register of Historic Places Archivist Jeff Joeckel told me. “The San Francisco Cable Cars (as a group) is a National Historic Landmark. National Monuments are a different designation. There are many ships that are National Historic Landmarks, as well as a few roller coasters. There are also a few railroad cars.”

It might be argued that if ever there was a time to relish being a skeptic, this is it. Not necessarily because people used to be more careful with what they said, but because we're way better equipped to call them on it. The Internet is lambasted as an abyss of lies, when really it’s a place to organize around the question of what’s real.

Fact-checking Snapple's claims is relatively easy now that all 928 of them are listed on the company's website. In bold typeface across the top of the screen: “Sip On Some Knowledge. These Are The Real Facts.” Okay.

But go down the rabbit hole of proving Snapple wrong and you'll find a scattered trail of heartbroken, tea-swilling bloggers who have attempted the same—only to discover that many of the “Real Facts” they've been sharing are bunk.

Credit where credit’s due: Not all of Snapple’s “Real Facts” are bogus. Many of them are legit. Flamingoes really do turn pink from eating shrimp (#11). Human brains do in fact weigh about three pounds (#55). And the Hawaiian alphabet really has 12 letters (#26) — that is, if you don't count the ‘okina.

But all of this raises larger questions about our relationship with information, not least of which is why we’d trust a beverage maker to inform us about anything other than its product. Perhaps it's naive to expect any truth in advertising but there’s still the lingering expectation that if someone explicitly says “this is a fact,” then it should be.

After all, Snapple isn't just selling iced tea, it’s selling information on bottle caps as “a central part of the Snapple experience,” according to a press release that quotes Snapple marketing director Dave Fleming. “We see them as really big ideas trapped in a small cap’s body,” he said.

Snapple's apparent carelessness may be alarming and even infuriating, but it isn't unique. Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy champion who won a record 74-straight games and some $3 million in prize money, says he feels “strong pressure” to correct some of the misinformation he's encountered as he’s working on a series of children's books of “amazing facts.”

“There is so much B.S. out there,” he said in an interview. “The lists that get emailed around? I think most of them are actually false, which is amazing because it's not even hard to get crazy facts about the world. But now people believe Winston Churchill was born in a ladies room, or that babies are born without kneecaps. They see it 10 times, so they think it must be true.”

There's a tendency to fully blame emerging technology for a litany of social ills, including the lies that people see and believe enough to share. You've heard the drumbeat: It's the Internet's fault we're lonely, dumb, sad, unoriginal, lying, narcissists. Twitter is dissolving our ability to focus! The decline of print is a sign of the apocalypse! Etc., etc., etc.

“But it's a really good thing we have Snopes and Wikipedia,” Jennings said. “You can usually find the online discussion. The great thing about the new digital era is you can already find people fighting over whether something is true.”

The thing about rabbit holes is they sometimes lead to a place where it seems nothing is true anymore. Friedrich Nietzsche said that—“nothing is true”—more than a century ago, arguing that the only way we might begin to get at a capital-T truth would be to first doubt everything.

His words about the fluid and relative nature of reality take on a particular resonance in the context of hand-wringing over technology today.

The people who distrust Twitter wholesale are fond of complaining that tweets are too short and devoid of context. And yet a bottle cap with a one-liner on it might be the closest thing we have to the physical manifestation of the tweet. The real lesson Snapple teaches us isn’t about how many eyelids a bee has or the first food eaten in space, it’s that the Internet's not inherently a place for lies any more than a bottle cap is a place for truth.

After all, it’s not just the medium but also the structural underpinnings of the medium that make the message. And for a company that likes to say, as Falk did, that Snapple was “a social brand before social was a buzzword,” perhaps it's useful to think of Snapple’s “Real Facts” as tweets that keep your lemonade from spilling rather than the kind that scroll across your iPhone screen.

In other words, if you’re going to doubt the information you encounter online, you'd better be doubting the information you encounter everywhere. Snapple’s all for it, Falk says.

“We always work to make sure they're as accurate as possible and that they are real facts,” Falk said. "Given today's technology and the pool of information, we encourage the discussion."

This fake “Real Fact” (Facebook.com)

In a sweet twist, at least one “Real Fact” that has made the Internet rounds is itself fake. There’s a widely shared image of what looks like a Snapple bottle cap that’s labeled "Real Fact #0,” and says, “Half of all Snapple ‘Real Facts’ are actually fake.”

“No, that is not an actual ‘Real Fact’!” said Snapple spokesman Chris Barnes in an email.

But it’s a semi-decent Photoshop job that has raised questions for some about the veracity of the rest of the “Real Facts.” One self-described “avid collector” of Snapple bottle caps blogged about her disappointment earlier this year, writing, “How are we to distinguish which facts are real and which are fake? I've been quoting these facts for over three years… Can this get any more confusing?”

In other words, only by believing something fake did she realize she had believed in something that truly wasn’t real.

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Presented by

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
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