Earl Merkel is a novelist, journalist and freelance writer, and radio talk-show host whose works have appeared in a variety of news, general-circulation, speciality and corporate publications. He is the author of two novels (FINAL EPIDEMIC and DIRTY FIRE, both PenguinPutnam/NAL); his new novel (VIRGINS AND MARTYRS) will be published in April 2008. He is currently working on FIRE OF THE PROPHET, a contemporary suspense thriller.
by Earl Merkel
"Hey, Frank-- hot enough for you?"
"Hey— hi. Yeah, hot as hell."
"Everybody loves saying that, you ever notice?"
"They ought to make it the corporate motto. You'd think a company this big could keep the damned air conditioning working. We're burning up over in Human Resources."
"Us, too. These damned offices, you can't even open a window. I had to take a break."
"The vending machines aren't working, as usual."
"Yeah, so I see. Figures. Want me to warm that up for you?"
"Sure, thanks. At least the coffee's supposed to be hot."
"Uh-huh. But why couldn't it taste like coffee, too? Not boiling vinegar."
"Haven't seen you around lately. Been out of the office?"
"They had me doing the 'visiting fireman' routine. A week out in the field, watching the gears turn and talking to site managers. Pain in the butt, but we're getting a lot of pressure from the Corner Office to goose production stats."
"Really? I thought your group was already going like a bat out of hell."
"We are. We've posted solid growth, plus a hell of a return on investment. We're spitting in the competition's face every day. But it's never enough for the damned bean-counters."
"You still on the same project?"
"Yep, 'cept now I've got the entire United States for my territory."
"Uh-huh. A bunch of freakin' customers out there. Makes for a lot of travel, too; least it gets me out of here, now and then. Don't tell anybody, but the hell of it is I like what I'm doing. Even after thirty damned years chained to the same project."
"Wow— I'd forgotten. You've been at it a long time."
"It was a back-alley cottage industry when I started. You should have seen the crapholes they had us working in back then. Now we're part of the company's Overall Strategic Plan. Hell, we have so much market penetration that other departments around here use us as a springboard."
"Where's your gross production now?"
"Overall, we just topped forty million units and growing. That's just domestic U.S. performance, of course. But Research says we're the bellwether for the rest of North America— hell, probably the whole damned world. We're actually the force that's defining the entire market niche now."
"The guys in the International Division must be a little hot over that."
"Oh, yeah; they're steaming. Well, boo-hoo, I say. I spent years listening to Deiter gas off about 'zee gut old days,' how efficiently they operated the plants, how they maximized raw material input, blah-blah-blah. Okay. But in their primary product segment, they only did— what, maybe twelve million units total? Pretty soon, we'll spill more than that every quarter."
"Be fair, Frank. Different world back then."
"Sure, sure; I'm not knocking those old-school guys. But they didn't think it through, you know? A few years of rapid growth, then boom! Put themselves out of business— just went belly-up. And why? They never understood their own damned business! They didn't know their marketplace, never built up a solid base of loyal, committed customers."
"It was a pilot program, Frank. And don't forget, they had to contend with a little nuisance called World War II."
"Yeah, whatever. They ended up trying to ram the product down the world's throat; turned off even the people who, so deep inside they couldn't admit to themselves, might have been ready to buy into the concept. Hell, look how they packaged it— what an atrocity! Common sense could have told them it wouldn't work. It's all in the image and product positioning. You have to make the world want what you're selling— that's how you get results."
"Marketing has come a long way."
"Damned straight. It's been the key for us. Pass me that coffee pot, will you?"
"Here you go— careful, don't spill on yourself."
"Thanks, but I don't think I could get much hotter— anyway, we researched the hell out of every relevant factor. We knew what potential customers enjoyed, what they needed to believe, how they wanted to think about themselves. I can even give you a printout we compiled of every damned urge and impulse of the typical human experience, broken down by every demographic factor there is. And once we knew the right buttons to push...well, that's when you're in business."
"In HR, we always say that people are only human."
"Good one. Bet you'd get a kick out of reading the research. Take your basic gender differences. Men —well, it's true, isn't it? All they want is smooth, easygoing pleasure; life's supposed to be fun, so give them a product that helps them achieve that gratification. Women are more demanding: they want a product to enhance their self-image as independent, free-spirited, strong-willed individuals. They want to believe that they are undeniably in charge of their own fate. So, we shape the product according."
"'You've come a long way, baby.' Nice touch, that. Ironic, even."
"Hijacked it right from under the guys on the tobacco account, but it fit us better anyway."
"Point is, everybody wants to feel unique—completely unlike anybody else. That's the nature of mass marketing, of course. Don't smile; it's true. Focus on the 'what about me?' and you've got 'em."
"Frank, you're a shameless cynic."
"Probably why I'm here. Anyway, marketing-wise, for us that translated to convenience. People wanted an easy way to indulge themselves, and then to solve any... we position them as 'messy aftereffects' in the promo copy... with an easily accessible product. It was Number Two on everybody's wish-list."
"Number Two? What came in first?"
"You'll love this. Initially, the studies indicated a hell of a lot of sales resistance— all the usual reasons: cultural, religious, psycho-biological. It was a stumper for a while, I'll tell you. Then a bright boy in Research had a major, pardon the expression, revelation."
"Simplicity itself. When we ran the numbers, we found out that more than anything else, people wanted to feel good —righteous, even— about using the damned product. Once we knew that, the rest was child's play."
"No child could do what you've accomplished."
"Nice play on words."
"Thought you'd like it."
"Credit where credit's due: the Communications Department did a hell of a job for us in a lot of ways. Great campaign; a classic, really. They used PR, media relations, government affairs, product placement in movies and on TV shows— hell, the whole nine yards."
"I'm glad to hear there really is a use for writers and ad-agency types. Frankly, I think the company is overstocked with them."
"Most of them are arrogant jerks, but they sure did the job. 'Course, you couldn't let them be too obvious; one message had to lead, subtly but inexorably, to the next. At first, it was a relatively slow process. See, we had to change ingrained attitudes, social mores, group perceptions; even basic instincts, sometimes. The maternal instinct, for instance, was a bitch."
"I can't even imagine."
"For years, the Communications guys planted stories, publicized how the glitterati made the product part of the 'hip' lifestyle. Celebrities were the best pitchmen we could have found! The consuming public just ate it all up— I know, I know, but we weren't dealing with Mensa candidates here; to the demographic we targeted, movie stars looked glamorous, and that was all we wanted."
"Can't argue with results, Frank."
"Like I said, we didn't expect success to come overnight. But when everything finally started to jell, the campaign created a real groundswell for us. Led right into increased product usage. I swear, all of a sudden you could see the sales resistance melting faster than a snowball in hell."
"Must have been a devil of a party that day."
"Fun and frolic, sure, but we still weren't earning even our expenses. Then we shifted into the next phase. Gradually, we turned the whole issue into a socio-political movement, based on a metaphysical argument."
"Uh— I'm not real strong on metaphysics, Frank."
"Me neither, but it sounds more complicated than it really is.. See, if you get people to focus exclusively on the 'me' of an issue, pretty soon they convince themselves that what they want to believe as reality is reality. Am I going too fast for you here?"
"Not so far."
"There's hope for you then—hey, you know I'm just kidding. Okay, so you convince them that there is no other factor in the equation. 'I am the universe,' that's what you want them to think. They alienate themselves; ultimately, in their minds they de-humanize everybody else. The psych boys say when you break that people-to-people chain, the 'other' becomes an 'it' — a nonentity. Get it?"
"Let's pretend I understand."
"The important fact is that it worked. We finally convinced enough people that they had a right to the damned product, simply because they wanted it. And once they started thinking that way— well, we had 'em. Enlightened self-interest equates to a cult of the self, and we had a product that catered to precisely that mindset. That gave us— hey, I didn't mean to rattle on like this."
"Impressive work, Frank. I mean that, sincerely. You've done one hell of a job."
"Took years, but it was worth the effort."
"I better get back to the salt mine. See you around?"
"Guess so, least until they send me back to the field. Four more clinics opening up next quarter, and I should probably show the flag. Can't be soon enough for me. Damn, it's hot here."
"Yeah. Hot as hell."
Copyright © 2006 Earl Merkel