By Kurt Kitasaki
Cartoon art by Sean McBride
I never assumed marketing a car with an exploding fuel tank would cause so many problems. As a CEO I felt it would benefit the American consumer, given the adventurous nature of our culture.
When we first introduced the Nova it instantly became the hottest sports car in its class. Our market share grew so rapidly the major automakers trembled. In fact, they even considered filing an anti-trust suit with the Justice Department.
Our success centered on the brilliant advertising campaign by my lawyer and vice-president of consumer research/propaganda, William Goebbels. No relation to the Nazi. (At least I hope not.) Together we created a series of commercials that appealed to the thrill-seeking nature of our 16-40 target audience.
We showed the Nova driving through rain forests, baseball stadiums, county fairs, with loud irrational music in the background. The sight of the sleek panther structured framework, combined with the glaring, lacquer colored paint, mesmerized the consumer. In one year we had half the market.
Then someone discovered a very slight problem. According to our chief engineer, due to a design flaw, up to 15% of the fuel tanks had the potential to spontaneously explode.
The good news was that I finally knew what I would buy my mother-in-law for her birthday.
I called an emergency meeting to determine the course of action. Along with Goebbels and all top executives, I called in an array of accountants accompanied by their assistants. They punched away on their hand held calculators. We performed one of the most highly regarded practices in the business community, the cost-benefit analysis.
With our razor keen intellects we estimated the cost of all expenses incurred in not recalling the Nova. This included lawsuits, replacement vehicles, refunds, etc. We juxtaposed them with the cost of recalling the vehicles.
After 23 million keystrokes we reached a decisive conclusion. The price of recalling would be approximately $14.52 per vehicle; the cost of leaving the vehicle on the road came to $14.51. A clear outcome.
We would not recall the Nova. A few un-patriotic executives tried objecting, but my decision was final. Before they left I said, "You can't argue with numbers!"
Later one of our research engineers was still furious about my decision. He called me up and said, "Mr. Grayson, our research shows that the temperature in one of those burning vehicles could reach up to a million degrees!" I simply responded, "Yeah, but fortunately it's a dry heat. Now go back to work or your fired!"
My trusted adviser Goebbels walked over to me and stated that my firm decisiveness reminded him of a boss one of his late relatives worked for in Germany during the 1940's.
Despite the flattering comparison, I've always been a man way too modest to accept praise. I smiled at him, stating, "It's all about serving the customer."
Now we would've had a fairy tale ending except for one problem. Over the last twenty years, there emerged an organization that replaced the unions as the most painful thorn in the side of corporate management: the consumer advocates. In the most irresponsible manner they began to publicize every explosion from the Nova. The media frenzy created such bad publicity that we noticed a slump in sales.
The most antagonistic of these advocates was the lawyer Joe Rambler, a man whose reputation for ruining the image of companies surpassed Ralph Nader. Rambler had a special vendetta against my corporation ever since one of our defective air bags prematurely ejected, giving his roving pit bull a black eye. So he quickly jumped on this opportunity.
For the first time I began to doubt our strategy. In the cost benefit analysis we never calculated the price of bad publicity. My professors at Harvard Business School never taught us how to calculate the monetary damage of showing an exploding vehicle on the five o'clock news. They often referred us to an ethics class when the question came up.
I felt my confidence wavering. There seemed to be no alternative, but to recall the Novas. Then my trusted adviser Goebbels gave some invaluable insight, which attested to his unparalleled knowledge of the consumer mind.
Instead of wasting billions on a recall and quality improvements, we could instead invest more into advertising to offset this unwarranted publicity. Goebbels had a Phd in psychology; he explained his study of our American culture showed the average individual had an inclination towards reckless experiences.
Sitting back in my suede leather chair, he argued that the target consumer had a sub-conscious desire to take risks. "Observe the violence you see on television, Mr. Grayson," he stated. Taking a remote control, he clicked some slides onto the projection screen. I saw people sky diving, drive by shootings, white water rafting, and posters of action adventure movies, juxtaposed with a human brain in the background.
"The average customer in our target segment doesn't really care about quality. They want image and glamour," he remarked, taking off his 14k gold-rimmed glasses. "Wait a minute. Are you saying that the consumer will subordinate safety in order to improve their image?" I questioned. "Precisely. We can't compete with the Japanese and Germans in quality, but instead we should give the people what they really desire. Adventure!"
It hit me like a divine revelation. I finally understood the mind of this marketing genius. We could maintain our sales volume despite the efforts of these consumer advocates. It's in the nature of our society to seek out image in a car before safety. In fact, subconsciously, the risk of owning an American car that may explode is enticing to our customers because of the subliminal patriotic implications. Why would an American buy a Nova opposed to a better built German or Japanese car? Because they know in the back of their minds it symbolizes why we're such a great country. It reminds us why we beat them during World War II, which is that we're superior to them at building things that can explode.
Once again it brought us back to the cost benefit analysis I learned at Harvard. The consumer would be willing to put up with a certain amount of "cost" (The danger of an explosion.), if the "benefit" (The idea of driving a car, which would make them feel good about themselves.) was greater than that "cost."
We quickly picked up our cell-phones, calling all executives to stop plans for a recall. Instead we held a meeting to design an advertising campaign that required three times the annual budget, that would describe the Nova as the car for the adventure seeker. This amount of saturation into the public mind would offset the negative publicity of Mr. Rambler and the consumer advocates.
Despite reports of explosions, and expenses from product lawsuits, our sales rebounded, increasing our profit margins. In fact things were so positive we drafted a design for a new vehicle that had a fuel tank four times the normal size planted on the front fender; called the Supernova. Our nemesis continued to counterattack with ads of his own, but we simply had more funds. We would have easily won this conflict, except for an incredible phenomena. Due to the unique frame work of the Nova, the bursting flames would often interact with the graphical wire design creating unusual patterns of fire.
Some observers testified that the fire from the explosions resembled the pattern of an Indian chief, another reported the image of Frank Sinatra, and one student from Berkeley thought he saw a pizza with extra anchovies.
All these visions combined were harmless compared to a pattern that often occurred during a collision. During such an event the flames would resemble a fist with the middle-index finger pointing out.
This event turned into disaster when Rambler made a commercial from film footage of one explosion. I sat aghast in my 42 room mansion as I watched his political ad on my wide-screen television. There on the screen I saw a recorded explosion of the flames coalescing into a middle finger. In the background the voice of Mr. Rambler said, "This is what CEO Grayson thinks of consumer safety."
I ran out of my mansion. In a patriotic fervor I jumped into my German made 98 Mercedes, and raced downtown to our corporate building. I entered the public relations department and saw all 85 employees running about in a state of panic.
The blow by Rambler was an unseen masterstroke. In a daring maneuver he completely erased all the emotion based social conditioning of our advertising.
The reason? He countered with the one image that more than any other spoke to the heart and mind of American culture: the middle finger.
In a few months our market share dropped 60%. We tried all kinds of promotional enticements like offering a case of #10 sun block with every car, or a hat with a very large brim. We even visited one of the burning vehicles with a local cub scout troop to sponsor a marshmallow roast.
It came to no avail. According to Goebbels the only way we could ever turn the tide of lagging sales was to discredit the source of the malicious attack. Mr. Rambler was in the middle of a large liability suit against the Nova. For the past several months he had been boldly guaranteeing a victory in the news media. If we could defeat him in this high-profile case, we could strike at his credibility, and win back our market share.
There remained one problem. The trial, already in its later stages, according to our chief-lawyer Goebbels, had gone terribly wrong. Every scientific expert testified to the explosive nature of the fuel tanks.
I began pacing in my office with my diamond studded walking stick. Then Goebbels walked in with his bent vulture shaped frame, carrying a 200 page profile of the jurists. He proclaimed the report showed the jury had a strong inclination to be swayed by image and theatrical presentations.
Placing the report on my desk he said, "Half of these jurors own SUV's. And best of all most of them once had cosmetic surgery." Even more encouraging was his study on the presiding Judge Blackmon. Despite having a rough exterior, he once had his balding head refurbished with implants.
Our scheme was basic, we would invite the jury to a local racetrack to testify to the safe nature of the Nova. The demonstration would be regulated by the Transportation Commission, who would allow the plaintiffs to choose the vehicle from our factory. What they didn't know is Goebbels had several paid contacts in the department that would allow us to gain access to the car a day before, to replace the fuel tank. Before Goebbels left my office to implement the plan, I grabbed him by the shoulder and said, "Just remember we're doing all this for the customer. Don't you realize if it wasn't for them we would be nothing?"
Rambler's camp jumped at the offer, his engineers would immediately find the explosive Nova. He stood up in his bright green suit, brimming with confidence. At first Judge Blackmon hesitated, but soon changed his mind when he heard the event would cause an array of reporters to descend on the event. I became so confident with our scheme I withdrew our settlement offer of a new Nova along with a lifetime supply of #10 sun block, and a eye patch for Rambler's pit bull.
The day before the event a problem arose. Due to poor inventory management, we couldn't find a safe fuel tank for the Nova. I took out my cell-phone to call the head mechanic. "Listen, I don't care how you fix this problem. Just do it, or you're fired!" Obviously, fear makes people do smart things. He called several hours later and informed me that the car would be safe to drive.
I felt the dawn of a new day break as Goebbels and I drove down to the local racetrack. The twelve jurors, along with Rambler and the plaintiffs sat in the stands. We provided pennants for the jurors who enthusiastically waved them. Rambler again had on that sickening crisp green suit.
On the racetrack Judge Blackmon meandered, preening his implanted hair, waving at the thousands of reporters. Before the car had even arrived, they had been swayed by the grandeur public relations event. The loud music echoed through the stands, the bright flags blew in triumph.
Then with a loud noise, the Nova raced out of the concrete tunnel like a victorious Roman chariot. When it reached the speed most of them usually exploded, Rambler knew something was wrong. Leaping to his feet he screamed, "Objection your honor! They're making a mockery of these proceedings!" But Blackmon was too busy shaking hands with reporters, and listening to our sincere praises of his judicial wisdom.
We really worked him over. We invited him to take a test drive. As we roared around the course, skidding like teenagers on vacation, we noticed the car affected his senses. Reclining back in the synthetic leather seats, he looked 20 years younger. Surely he imagined how the photographs of his ride in this great machine would help his bid for the Supreme Court. Leaning back further he said, "You two have quite a piece of machinery here. It looks like you have this case won," winking slyly.
I sat amazed at his foresight in being able to predict the trials outcome. To thank him, I assured him we would do our utmost to raise funds for his lobbying efforts to reach the Supreme Court. "We could always use an honest judge working on our behalf," Goebbels explained.
I graciously added, "May I say, Judge Blackmon, you have the nicest hair I've ever seen. If I owned a magazine, I'd ask you to model for the cover." Lifting his head up like a peacock he said, "Well, Mr. Grayson I guess some people have it and some don't."
Upon exiting the vehicle the jurors along with the reporters were on their feet applauding. The Pavlovian conditioning from our advertising had completely revived. It was clear we won. I looked at Rambler. He had an irreverent expression of juvenile contempt, like Al Gore after election night, refusing to concede defeat.
My confidence was at its highest level. I didn't just want to win, I wanted to humiliate him. I proposed a stunt that would prove once and for all the safety of the Nova. We would take my car and crash it into the Nova. The car would be driven at 30 MPH a speed where any normal tank would remain inert.
The reporters with renewed excitement positioned their cameras for the spectacle. Rambler ran to any reporter within reach, shaking them trying to convince them of the fraud.
As my Mercedes headed towards the side of the Nova. I felt I had just won an academy award, so I had to thank someone. Picking up my cell-phone I called the head mechanic to thank him for reworking the vehicle. He was grateful for the bonus I gave him. He excitedly explained how hard he labored trying to fix the problem.
Appreciating his improvisational skills I asked, "By the way, just how did you replace that fuel tank?" Replying with an air of confidence he said, "Actually I couldn't find one for the car so I instead made some adjustments near the tank. Everything will go fine. Well, as long as you don't have a side impact collision."
I froze in paralysis. In that moment the car struck the Nova. As a giant orange burst of fire erupted I saw the hopes of an ideal consumed in a conflagration. Gone were my dreams of easy market share, exponential profits, and fame.
Due to the collision angle; the shape of the flames coalesced with slight variations. The flames formed the fist with the middle finger, but at a horizontal angle. The higher octane fuel interacting with the matrix framework of the Nova caused the middle finger to shoot out an extra 80 yards, striking Judge Blackmon who had his back turned, waving to the photographers.
The horizontal fingered inferno struck Blackmon on the back of the head, and upper shoulder. The unique ingredients in his hair implants interacted with the fire, curling up, and embedded into his head like crop circles.
For a few seconds there was complete silence from the audience. Then I heard a squealing laugh piercing off the stadium walls in a vibrant echo. In the stands I saw my nemesis Rambler on his back laughing with hysteria.
Needless to say Judge Blackmon later threw Goebbels and I in jail for contempt. Legend has it he was hanging from a pair of stirrups preparing for a skin graph when he gave the order. I'm sure his anger became intolerable when an engineer he consulted theorized that he would never be able to delete the circular images of the implants on his head. The Nobel Prize winning engineer insisted they had become ingrained on his head like a shadow after a nuclear explosion.
When the trial finished, the jury had awarded the plaintiffs 2.4 million for compensatory damage along with 8.2 billion for punitive damage. The 8.2 billion composed our entire advertising budget.
Without advertising we now have no way to increase sales. The only way to make a profit is to cut costs. I feel very confident I can do this while avoiding controversy. I just had a meeting with the CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone, and he said he could sell us some tires at a very low price. We should have them in a couple of months. Just in time for my mother-in-law's birthday.
Kurt Kitasaki has previously been published in The Starry Night Review, Digizine, and will soon be published in EWG Presents, and 3AM Magazine. Email - email@example.com