5 Big Companies Who Went Insane Trying To Get Ahead

Big business can be brutal.
5 Big Companies Who Went Insane Trying To Get Ahead

The world of big business can be brutal, so it's no surprise that companies sometimes resort to unorthodox tactics to get ahead. But there's "exploit a loophole to get around some pesky regulations," and then there's "start a secret spy agency and/or try to poison everybody." The former is pretty much par for the course. But the latter? Ah, that's the stuff Cracked articles are made of ...

One Of The UK's Biggest Brewers Tried To Poison Their Rival's Cider

Aston Manor Brewery is a major cider company in the UK, specializing in large, cheap plastic bottles of cider beloved by elderly alcoholics and preteen gangs alike. Those two key demographics helped Aston Manor become the third-largest cider producer in the UK. But when the booze market entered a downturn in 2001, the company found itself in a battle for market share with HP Bulmer. After Bulmer snagged a major contract, Aston Manor managing director Michael Hancocks decided to go Wicked Queen on their ass. That's right, he was gonna poison their apples.

5 Big Companies Who Went Insane Trying To Get Ahead
Walt Disney Pictures
They don’t specify that he wasn’t wearing a black hood and calling everyone “dearie,” so that’s how we’re choosing to picture it.

After hiring a chemist to produce a variety of yeast that would cause nausea and violent diarrhea, Hancocks bribed a factory employee to dump eight bottles of the stuff into Bulmer's production line. If the plan had succeeded, it would have forced an expensive recall -- and also, you know, a bunch of people would have become seriously ill. Fortunately, the Bulmer employee had a change of heart and called the police. Hancocks was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He is presumably very sick of people asking him how he liked them apples.

A Student Loan Company Created A Fake Journalist To Promote Their Loans

Young people of today emerge from college burdened with heavy debts, and possibly legally owned by a Mauritanian brick factory. Fortunately, Drew Cloud was there to help. As a financial journalist specializing in student loans, Cloud ran his own website, and his commentary appeared in mainstream outlets like The Washington Post and Boston Globe. He wrote, he researched, he did interviews with journalists, and his work appeared under his own smiling headshot. There was just one problem: Drew Cloud didn't exist.

The Chronicle Of Higher Education revealed that Cloud was a fake person created by the student loan company LendEDU, which apparently took the whole "corporations are people too" thing a little too far. Cloud's advice on dealing with student loan debt often suggested refinancing (or other services offered by LendEDU), and Cloud's site also linked to LendEDU without disclosing that the company owned the site (and the fictional Cloud).

Things started to unravel when Chronicle reporter Chris Quintana reached out to Cloud and became suspicious about his evasive responses to personal questions, as well as his insistence that he could only be interviewed via email. Quintana did some digging and discovered some strange similarities between Cloud's website and LendEDU's own site, including an "odd mixture of juvenile and mean-spirited humor" like headlines that read "43 percent of students said they would hook up with Caitlyn Jenner to erase their debt," or "27 percent of students would contract the Zika virus to live debt-free." When pressed, LendEDU admitted that they had made Cloud up. There's a lesson here, kids ...

But you'll have to pay us 17 grand a year to learn it.

BlackBerry Hired Women To Flirt With Guys In Bars

These days, BlackBerry is best known for its innovative approach to not being a thing anymore. But back in the day, they were renowned for their creative approach to marketing. That started in the early days of the company, with a team of employees that would hang around in airports looking for people who seemed like business executives, then walking up to them and begging them to try their product. It was called the Puppy Dog Routine, and was surprisingly effective at getting the company off the ground. But eventually BlackBerry grew beyond guerrilla guilt trips and decided to adopt a sneakier approach to marketing.

BlackBerry maker RIM hired attractive actresses to flirt with guys in bars while prominently holding BlackBerries. One operation involved a woman asking passersby to take her picture in tourist spots to get them to handle the phone, and one actress admitted she asked men to put their phone numbers in her BlackBerry, even though she "definitely didn't call anyone." So that's why all of those women never called us!

That must be why.

Air Canada Proved WestJet Was Hacking Them (By Going Through WestJet's Trash)

In 2003, upstart Canadian airline WestJet obtained login credentials from a former Air Canada employee named Jeffrey Lafond, giving them access to an internal Air Canada website, which contained flight loads and other valuable information. And boy did they use it. Lafond's login was used 243,630 times in less than a year, a number rivaled only by Ted Cruz's Pornhub account. It was just the start of a very weird, very Canadian air travel rivalry.

In 2004, Air Canada sued WestJet, alleging corporate espionage. But how could they prove that? Quite easily, as it turns out, because Air Canada had paid private detectives to repeatedly steal the garbage of WestJet co-founder Mark Hill. (There are apparently two of them in Canada.) Hill even photographed one group of detectives who screeched up to his home in Victoria, emptied his trash cans into their pickup truck, and peeled out again, ignoring his shouts of "Do you work for Air Canada?" That might seem like a weird question, given that the alternative was a roving gang of garbage perverts, but this was one of few situations in which the latter would actually be preferable.

The stolen trash included shredded documents, which the investigators painstakingly pieced back together to reveal Air Canada's secret flight load data. They got another break when Hill took an Air Canada flight to Florida. The airline moved his girlfriend to a different seat, and sat a private eye in fake glasses and a goatee next to him instead so he could sneak peeks at confidential information on Hill's computer. Meanwhile, Hill had started loading his trash cans with fake shredded documents which, when pieced together, revealed his plans to "take digital photos of the two morons digging thru my garbage looking for propriety WestJet information."

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Unfortunately, lawyers stepped in before this could culminate in the Wile E. Coyote “runway painted on a wall” finale this was obviously leading to.

This all led to an amazing lawsuit wherein Air Canada and WestJet both accused each other of corporate espionage. Neither company denied the allegations, but insisted that they hadn't broken the law. Air Canada said Hill's garbage was over his property line and therefore fair game, while WestJet said the information they got through the website was useless and therefore Air Canada had suffered no damage.

The two sides settled in 2006, with WestJet agreeing to pay a small sum ($15 million) in compensation, probably because they realized "We logged in 243,630 times for something meaningless" wasn't going to fly. It also didn't help that Hill used to send an Air Canada executive taunting emails like, "I'd be willing to bet my next profit-share cheque that YWG-YXU has the lowest load factor of any domestic route operated by AC today." That sounds like gibberish, but take our word that it's a freaking devastating burn in the airline management community.

Ringling Bros. Had A Secret Spy Agency

In 1990, disgraced former CIA deputy director Clair George was hired by the legendary Ringling Bros. Circus. No, he didn't start a new life as a geek -- he was initially hired to help persuade the Chinese to sell them a panda, but Ringling was feeling the heat from animal rights groups, and owner Ken Feld soon asked George to help them set up an in-house spy agency to undermine the circus' enemies. For the next 10 years, the circus ran a secret operation using Watergate-style dirty tricks to destroy anyone who threatened the business.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images
The clothes might have been a bit conspicuous for spy work, but the hired muscle was second to none.

A journalist named Jan Pottker was working on an unflattering book about the Feld family, so Ringling bugged her house and phones, monitored her friends, and tailed her in an attempt to dig up dirt. When that didn't work, they set up a fake literary agency and commissioned her to write a book on the Mars family -- all while discouraging her from pursuing the circus story. When the Mars book was published, Ringling deliberately engineered a copyright dispute with a photographer to get it pulled off the shelves. They then delayed her next book for years. Pottker had no idea why things kept going wrong for her until the story finally broke and she realized her colleague of eight years was a secret circus spy. Don't you hate it when that happens?

Ringling also sent a pair of spies to infiltrate the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). The duo rose to a high rank in the organization, all while reporting everything back to the circus. They bugged other PAWS officials, and even broke into their houses to photograph them. Other spies joined PETA, where they tried to incite illegal acts, presumably before learning that PETA requires little incitement. The spy unit also bugged and harassed employees who had filed for workman's comp, and covered up a TB outbreak among Ringling's elephants.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Don’t act like you didn’t see “elephant-related cover-up” coming.

It only fell apart when a circus executive decided to bug his girlfriend. One day, he ordered his assistant to collect all the illegal tapes, as well as to pick up a jeep from the girlfriend's house. The assistant became confused, and delivered the tapes to the girlfriend (and then collected all the jeeps?). The woman called the police, and that's what led to the investigation that revealed the spycraft. Ringling Bros. settled all cases out of court before going out of business in 2017. The PAWS settlement involved handing over several elephants, just to bring everything full circle.

You can do better than those apple-poisoners -- brew your own cider.

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