To the chagrin of faculty and fellow students, Alex H had been thinking. A year earlier, he had discovered Greenpeace. He was questioning advertising and marketing. Could his education be used for something good, or just to sell shit? Through tremendous effort and force of will, Alex H was able to convince his colleagues to invite RTMark- the anti-corporate corporation- to speak alongside GM, Coke, Bennetton, Bital, Absolut, and others.
We arrived at the campus to find modern- even futuristic--- facilities. Every student had been required to own a laptop computer for more than a year, and this was still 1999. There were ethernet jacks on all the park benches. There were transparent buildings. But even more modern than the facilities was the curriculum.
All marketing students had to take a class where they worked in teams to set up and run a hamburger business. During the contest, the campus is transformed into a sea of competing hamburger stalls, all of which have to vie for the business of the student population. At the end, a prize awarded to the stand that rakes in the most dough.
We thought it uproariously funny, but we had to bite our tongues when we saw how efficiently these Hamburger U grads could run a corporate conference. Their very silly training regimen was producing very organized and efficient students. This wasn't like a student conference back home, with dormitory accommodations and little funding: here they had lined up big corporate sponsors, organized upscale hotels, meals, lavish events and entertainment: it was everything one might expect from a really well run conference, except for one little glitch.
The event opened with the unveiling of the "M2K" which was Chevrolet's "Car for the new Millennium." The M2K was secreted away inside a giant box, flanked by phalluses pointing skyward with "M2K" printed in gleaming gold letters on the side.
A crowd gathered in anticipation: they were to be the first human eyes to witness the M2K. Corporate rock blared. The box flew open. Balloons floated skyward. (I think white doves were released.)
Then silence. Grumbling.
The small red car in the box was the most common car on the streets of Mexico City. It wasn't new. It was the K-Car of Mexico. The GM rep explained that because it had different rearview mirrors, and a limited edition shiny metallic "M2K" on the side, it was very special.
People didn't buy it, and for the rest of the day, everyone talked about how maybe the message was actually a brilliantly subtle lesson in marketing: Its all about the hype, nothing about the product.
The following day, we woke up late, shook off our hangovers, and went to the main venue. It was a very large room, and it featured not only a stage, but also a fashion runway for the Malibu Rum Dancers. Malibu Rum was a conference sponsor, and the Dancers were going to burst out of a dense cloud of fog and light immediately following our presentation- the last presentation of the entire conference. The Malibu Rum girls would hand out free Malibu Rum drinks to lure people to the after party, in an open-air bar where we were required to ride a real bull.
If that wasn't threatening enough, first we had to make it through the other presentations. In the presentation immediately preceding ours, a distinguished creative type (slicked-back gray pony tail) came out in an Armani suit. Half way through his lecture, he opened his briefcase and pulled out a kitsch ornamental sombrero, which he put on and then started dancing to the over-modulated strains of mariachi music. The crowd went wild.
His message: Why take a long time to signify something (like Mexican-ness), when you can do it in ten seconds with some carefully chosen symbols. Then, to address what he knew everyone was thinking: "This is insulting bullshit! This isn't Mexican-ness!" music quickly shifted into a sultry strip-tease, the fog machines squirted atomized fluids, and the guy started stripping down. The crowd went wild. Underneath his suit he wore a green, red, and white soccer uniform, which, he said, could just as quickly, efficiently, and effectively represent Mexican-ness without relying on the old stereotypes! Olé!
It was clear that his presentation was winding down--and the pressure was on. Candid, Fred and I had an emergency meeting. We needed to do something dramatic to follow this guy. Shit, we were supposed to end the whole conference! We had to go on just before the Malibu Rum Dancers! The last thing we could do was deliver a dry, boring lecture.
We took Alex H. aside and gave him instructions. He was to announce that we were going to unveil something truly new and fantastic. He ran off to do our bidding, and came running back with a table cloth a few minutes later.
The conference organizers were warming up the audience with some cheers.
Who is from Sinaloa! (Cheer)
Who is here from Nayarit? (Cheer)
Alex H went onstage and made the announcement. The conference opened with the unveiling of a novel new concept in automobilism, the M2K. Now, to close the conference, something even newer and more amazing is going to be unveiled. What people are about to see is new, different, and better than everything that has come before it. It is part of progress, of an effort to continually move forward on the path of progress toward new horizons. It is something truly great. Something fantastic. Something new! What is it?
The E2K! The Executive for the New Millennium!
Negativland's "Dispepsi" blared over the PA. Fog machines squirted. Candid and Fred lifted the veil, and the E2K stood up, almost naked, very pathetic. The E2K wore nothing but the comfortable but- hideous underwear that his mom gives him every year at Christmas. The E2K waddled slowly to the front of the runway, distended its gut, pulled its tidy whiteies up into its butt-crack, and squeezed its own ass repeatedly. The crowd went mental. Screaming, laughing.
The E2K slowly did a reverse strip tease--putting the business suit on piece by piece. When the crowd noise had finally died down, the E2K, reborn as the average RTMark worker Frank, showed the RTMark corporate video and explained how RTMark uses techniques of the public relations and advertising industries to deliver counter-cultural messages, and to criticize big corporations like the conference sponsors.
That was Candid's cue to take the podium. She brought out the smoking gun- explaining a host of occasions when General Motors- the makers of the great M2K- had knowingly acted against the public good, for example when they conspired to ruin public transportation in Los Angeles during the 1930's. She explained exactly when and how, over the past century, GM and other corporations had systematically committed crimes against humans in their efforts to profit, and how advertising agencies, marketers, and public relations workers were complicit in those crimes.
After that, Fred came in as the clean-up hitter, addressing the spectre of neo-liberal economics in a post-NAFTA world, and then bringing it home to the students in the room. They were the future of advertising and marketing in Mexico. They could make a difference. They could research the history of whom they worked for, and they could try to explore what it might mean to choose jobs based on ethics. Or, even better, they could wait until they were in a position of power, and then subvert the system from the inside.
The response was very positive. Cheering, clapping, questions about Phillip Morris and smoking, and about what they could do to fight injustice everywhere. It felt good- at least until our time was up, and the perma-smiles of the high-kicking Malibu Rum Dancers took over the stage.