|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.