The world's biggest manufacturer of household and grooming products voiced hopes yesterday that an urban myth linking it to Satanism was being crushed after four men were ordered to pay almost $20 million (£10 million) in damages for spreading the rumour.

At the end of a 12-year legal case in Salt Lake City, Utah, a US District Court jury found against a group of distributors from a rival company who had left voicemail messages alleging that part of Procter & Gamble's profits went to devil-worshipping cults.

P&G - which owns brands such as Pampers, Gillette, Head & Shoulders and Ariel - has long been in despair over the stubborn refusal of such claims to go away.

Since the rumours first appeared in 1981, the corporation has had to battle boycotts from Christian groups, cope with more than 200,000 telephone inquiries from customers and fight the ability of word-of-mouth - and latterly the internet - to disseminate them.

The origins of this accusation are apparently based on a passage from the Book of Revelation in the Bible, stating: "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars."

P&G's logo used to consist of a bearded and twin-horned man in the moon surrounded by 13 stars. Claims that this represented a deliberate mockery of the heavenly symbol were fuelled by others suggesting that a mirror image of the "Mark of the Beast" - the numbers 666 - could be seen inside the logo.

The corporation denied this, pointing out that the stars were intended as a tribute to America's 13 original states and that the "666" pattern emerged only if an arbitrary game of connect the dots was played.

P&G eventually abandoned the old logo on everything except some of its buildings, but not before a new - and even more virulent - version of the urban myth emerged. This alleged that the corporation's president had appeared on The Phil Donahue Show on March 1, 1994, to confirm that a large portion of his profits went to support the Church of Satan.

It went on to quote the P&G executive boasting to Mr Donahue that this would not hurt business because "there are not enough Christians in the United States to make a difference". There have been repeated denials from P&G and TV companies that anybody from the corporation had appeared on such a show making such an extraordinary statement.

But in April 1995 Randy Haugen, a dealer for Amway Corporation, which sells similar household merchandise, placed an audio message on the company's voicemail system repeating this allegation and urged listeners to boycott 43 listed P&G products. P&G accused three other Amway distributors of forwarding the message, including Stephen Bybee, who told the court that there was no malicious intent.

"My goal when I sent [the rumour] down was to fight the Church of Satan," he said.

Terry Loftus, a P&G spokesman, said yesterday that the corporation had spent large sums of money defending its reputation from false allegations that had led to an unquan-tifiable loss of business.

"This rumour will probably never go away completely but the number of calls we get on it have fallen off significantly after we started taking legal action," he added. Amway, which has defended itself against direct legal action, promises to help its former distributors if they seek to appeal against Friday's court ruling.

Kate Makled, spokeswoman for Alticor, Amway's parent company, said that despite the four men making public apologies, "P&G has spent 12 years destroying their lives". She added: "P&G is a $68 billion company. What they got out of this case was what they could earn in about 2½ hours. We think that's shameful."

Well, I never. . .

It must be true - the internet said so:

-Marlboro cigarette packs contain references to the Ku Klux Klan. Three Ks appear on the packaging, and the horses' legs in the Philip Morris crest outline white Klan hoods

-The occult symbol of the horned owl is visible in the centre of the G8 2005 logo. The white space within the logo forms the head and body of the owl, and the horns are marked in white either side of the thistle flower

-An apple with a bite taken out of it may seem an innocuous logo, but to occultists the Apple logo represents the biblical fruit and symbolises the path to self-divinity achieved through knowledge

-The AOL logo can be viewed as a stylised all-seeing eye - a Masonic symbol. Other devices that depict this image are logos of the UN, Starbucks and Adobe Photoshop, and the American dollar bill

-The dollar bill also shows another Masonic symbol - the pyramid. However, the US Government claims that these illustrations represent the work of nation-building (the unfinished pyramid) and the divine eye of providence

-On close examination, a naked man with an erect penis can be seen in the Camel cigarette logo

-The figures 666 are visible within the World Economic Forum logo