Jennifer Government by Max Barry
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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There’s no limit to the lengths marketers will go to sell their products in Max Barry’s entertaining satire, Jennifer Government. Consumers are encouraged to sign up for points and credits with one of two alliance networks. The alliances battle each other for members. Sometimes, customers need to be killed to call attention to a company’s product. Fans of Adbusters and other anti-marketing organizations will love Jennifer Government. All the venal and materialistic aspects of human nature are laid bare in this novel. Considering the spate of corporate scandals in recent years, this book will find many fans who nod at the corporate malfeasance presented. Here’s the first chapter, which sets the stage:
Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the watercooler. He was only there because the one on his floor was out; Legal was going to come down on Nature's Springs like a ton of shit, you could bet on that. Hack was a Merchandise Distribution Officer. This meant when Nike made up a bunch of posters, or caps, or beach towels, Hack had to send them to the right place. Also, if someone called up complaining about missing posters, or caps, or beach towels, Hack had to take the call. It wasn't as exciting as it used to be.
"It's a calamity," a man at the watercooler said. "Four days away from launch and Jennifer Government's all over my ass."
"Jee-sus," his companion said. "That's gotta suck."
"It means we have to move fast." He looked at Hack, who was filling his cup. "Hi there."
Hack looked up. They were smiling at him as if he was an equal—but of course, Hack was on the wrong floor. They didn't know he was just a Mere Officer. "Hi."
"Haven't seen you around before," the calamity guy said.
"No. I work in Mere."
"Oh." His nose wrinkled.
"Our cooler's out," Hack said. He turned away quickly.
"Hey, wait up," the suit said. "You ever do any marketing work?"
"Uh," he said, not sure if this was a joke. "No."
The suits looked at each other. The calamity guy shrugged. Then they stuck out their hands. "I'm John Nike, Guerrilla Marketing Operative, New Products."
"And I'm John Nike, Guerrilla Marketing Vice-President, New Products," the other suit said.
"Hack Nike," Hack said, shaking.
"Hack, I'm empowered to make midrange labor-contracting decisions," Vice-President John said. "You interested in some work?"
"Some . . ." He felt his throat thicken. "Marketing work?"
"On a case-by-case basis, of course," the other John said.
Hack started to cry.
There," a John said, handing him a handkerchief. "You feel better?"
Hack nodded, shamed. "I'm sorry."
"Hey, don't worry about it," Vice-President John said. "Career change can be very stressful. I read that somewhere."
"Here's the paperwork." The other John handed him a pen and a sheaf of papers. The first page said CONTRACT TO PERFORM SERVICE, and the others were in type too small to read.
Hack hesitated. "You want me to sign this now?"
"It's nothing to worry about. Just the usual noncompetes and nondisclosure agreements."
"Yeah, but. . ." Companies were getting a lot tougher on labor contracts these days; Hack had heard stories. At Adidas, if you quit your job and your replacement wasn't as competent, they sued you for lost profits.
"Hack, we need someone who can make snap decisions. A fast mover."
"Someone who can get things done. With a minimum of fucking around."
"If that's not your style, well. . . let's forget we spoke. No harm done. You stick to Merchandising." Vice-President John reached for the contract.
"I can sign it now," Hack said, tightening his grip.
"It's totally up to you," the other John said. He took the chair beside Hack, crossed his legs, and rested his hands at the juncture, smiling. Both Johns had good smiles, Hack noticed. He guessed everyone in marketing did. They had pretty similar faces, too. "Just at the bottom there."
"Also there," the other John said. "And on the next page . . .and one there. And there."
"Glad to have you on board, Hack." Vice-President John took the contract, opened a drawer, and dropped it inside. "Now. What do you know about Nike Mercurys?"
Hack blinked. "They're our latest product. I haven't actually seen a pair, but . . . I heard they're great."
The Johns smiled. "We started selling Mercurys six months ago. You know how many pairs we've shifted since then?"
Hack shook his head. They cost thousands of dollars a pair, but that wouldn't stop people from buying them. They were the hottest sneakers in the world. "A million?"
"Two hundred million?"
"No. Two hundred pairs."
"John here," the other John said, "pioneered the concept of marketing by refusing to sell any products. It drives the market insane."
"And now it's time to cash in. On Friday we're gonna dump four hundred thousand pairs on the market at two and a half grand each."
"Which, since they cost us—what was it?"
"Since they cost us eighty-five cents to manufacture, gives us a gross margin of around one billion dollars." He looked at Vice-President John. "It's a brilliant campaign."
"It's really just common sense," John said. "But here's the thing. Hack: if people realize every mall in the country's got Mercurys, we'll lose all that prestige we've worked so hard to build.
Am I right?"
"Yeah." Hack hoped he sounded confident. He didn't really understand marketing.
"So you know what we're going to do?"
He shook his head.
"We're going to shoot them," Vice-President John said.
"We're going to kill anyone who buys a pair."
Silence. "What?" Hack said.
The other John said, "Well) not everyone, obviously. We figure we only have to plug . . . what did we decide? Five?"
"Ten," Vice-President John said. "To be safe."
"Right. We take out ten customers, make it look like ghetto kids, and we've got street cred coming out our asses. I bet we shift our inventory within twenty-four hours."
"I remember when you could always rely on those little street kids to pop a few people for the latest Nikes," Vice-President John said. "Now people get mugged for Reeboks, for Adidas—for generics, for Christ's sake."
"The ghettos have no fashion sense anymore," the other John said. "I swear, they'll wear anything."
"It's a disgrace. Anyway, Hack, I think you get the point. This is a groundbreaking campaign."
"Talk about edgy," the other John said. "This defines edgy."
"Urn . . ." Hack said. He swallowed. "Isn't this kind of. . . illegal?"
"He wants to know if it's illegal," the other John said, amused. "You're a funny guy, Hack. Yes, it's illegal, killing people without their consent, that's very illegal."
Vice-President John said, "But the question is: what does it cost? Even if we get found out, we burn a few million on legal fees, we get fined a few million more . . . bottom-line, we're still way out in front."
Hack had a question he very much didn't want to ask.
"So . . . this contract . . . what does it say I'll do?"
The John beside him folded his hands. "Well, Hack, we've explained our business plan. What we want you to do is..."
"Execute it," Vice-President John said.
Barry’s writing will win no awards, but Jennifer Government is a creative story that takes the corporate practices we observe daily and projects them into a malevolent future. Reading this can be entertaining, if you can control your blood pressure. If it makes you feel defensive about your organization’s affinity programs, all the better.
Steve Hopkins, August 22, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Jennifer Government.htm
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