First published by Moronic Ox more than ten years ago,
"Manhattan" by Joe B. Vaughn, Jr.
remains one of our favorite pieces of short fiction.
We hope you enjoy the Encore Presentation!
by Joe B. Vaughan, Jr.
Tiffany Burton was excited by the opportunity. She was going to prove herself at SomaTech. Tiffany had big blue eyes and long blonde hair that she wore up to look more professional. Tiffany was very pretty and very intelligent, and she prided herself on relying on the latter more than the former. She had paid her dues to be a marketing expert, interning at several major agencies while finishing her degree. During her last semester she accepted a position as an Assistant Product Marketing Specialist at Schelber, Inc., one of the world’s largest medical supply companies. In four years she had worked her way up through the ranks at Schelber as Junior Product Marketing Specialist, then Senior Product Marketing Specialist, and finally Marketing Manager for all of Schelber’s disposable tube products. It was a meteoric rise, but after another year she found herself bored with most things tube-like, and began to look around. While she understood the importance of such technology in the medical field, and lord knows Schelber sold lots of tubeage, the challenge of explaining a product or service in such a way as to make it irresistible to the target audience was not overly important at Schelber. The target audience knew what it wanted. So Tiffany decided to go elsewhere. Her first interviews were at competing medical supply companies, all offering more money and greater responsibilities. After some consideration Tiffany thought she would be just as bored with these other companies after a few years, so she changed industries and began to explore the very lucrative world of pharmaceuticals. There were two or three major drug companies that immediately caught her attention, but after learning which of the big three had pioneered “blind benefit” marketing and advertising, she knew where she wanted to be – SomaTech. Blind benefit marketing was ingenious. SomaTech rolled out a complete line of television and print advertising, using beautiful color graphics and high production values to show a pill, usually in some bucolic setting, complete with some airy name spelled out in flowing cursive lettering. The ads and the marketing campaigns told the audience everything about the drug, except what it was used for.
And herein was the real genius. SomaTech set up a huge network of doctors all over the country who received bonuses for reporting the age, sex, income level, insurance coverage, general health disposition, and most important of all, level of perceived hypochondria, of anyone asking about a particular SomaTech blind benefit-advertised product. The freshly harvested information went back to SomaTech, where it was sifted to establish potential markets for their drugs.
This marketing technique proved very effective for new pharmaceuticals going to the pharmacies after FDA approval. But the real value for SomaTech was in repackaging previously approved drugs, especially during the last two years before the formulas became available for generic manufacture. This gave most of SomaTech’s drug line a second life, allowing the huge pharmaceutical company to almost double the projected profits for each formula. With increasing R&D expense and difficulty guaranteeing profitable markets for their treatments after FDA testing, repackaging existing drugs was playing an increasingly significant role in SomaTech’s bottom line, and blind benefit marketing was a real godsend. This, thought Tiffany, is some real marketing. I want in! She began her campaign by tracking different members of the SomaTech marketing brain trust to their favorite hangouts, and beginning casual conversations about marketing in general, and medical-related marketing in specific. Most of the SomaTech folks were happy to compare notes, especially when they discovered that Tiffany was working for a non-rival medical supply company, but only to a point. She quickly learned that there were other programs, perhaps far more effective than the good old blind benefit approach, that these SomaTech people were developing, probably already using, but she just couldn’t get past their knowing smiles. She plied them with drinks. She told them secrets about Schelber’s customers. Hell, she even told them secrets about Schelber’s competitors, but nothing seemed to work. They were just a little too smug, and a little too careful to be taken in. So, she decided to use the only route left to her to gain access to this intoxicating, seemingly forbidden private club know as the SomaTech Strategic Marketing Group. On the night she opened her assault on the summit, she wore her hair down for the first time around the SomaTech personnel. She knew they would be gathered at their favorite Friday night watering hole, Fine’. She also wore a short, tight skirt and a silky blouse that made any man around immediately aware of the wonderful contours of her body. Then, after making sure all of the SomaTech marketing men were aware of her, she strolled over to the most senior of the male SomaTech marketing professionals, and sat down next to him at the bar. His name was Ron Wither. Ron had been in marketing at SomaTech for 20 years, and was currently Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for the Strategic Marketing Group. He was used to being approached by people sniffing jobs. He especially liked it when young females approached him for possible professional consideration.
Tiffany didn’t really like his looks – his gray hair and wicked leer gave him the appearance of an old letch, which he was – but she had tried everything else and she wanted in. She turned to him and smiled as seductively as she thought was necessary for the situation, and figured she had scored when he moved closer to her at the bar.
“Hello,” started Ron, “I’m Ron Wither, SomaTech…” “I know who you are,” smiled Tiffany. “You’re legendary in your field.” Ron, who had heard many an opening salvo from would-be employees, was still slightly flattered by Tiffany’s observation. But mostly by the tone of her voice as she delivered it. “My name is Tiffany Burton,” she continued. “I’m a Marketing Manager at Schelber’s, but I’m bored. I think I’m ready to do some real marketing.” She smiled sweetly at Ron. He moved a little closer to her on his bar stool, leering. “You’re doing a pretty good job right now,” he smiled, “but, why so bored?” “I don’t have to work very hard to attract my audience,” she replied. “They already know what they want.” “That probably happens to you a lot,” leered Ron, as he moved his knee to brush against her exposed thigh. “Steady, steady,” Tiffany thought to herself, fighting the intense impulse to kick this bastard in the balls and storm out the door. “In another year or two you’ll be showing this turd the door yourself.” She left his knee where it was and tried to imagine herself anywhere but there, with a terrible image of Ron’s leering teeth and old tired pale eyes. “So,” continued Tiffany, “how do I get an interview over at SomaTech?” She had not noticed another man standing behind her. He was around the same age as Ron, but sharper, more defined, much more in focus. He was drinking a scotch poured from a blue bottle of Johnny Walker, and he was standing at precisely the correct angle to both notice Ron’s knee, and Tiffany’s subtle, but negative reaction.
“You would need to talk to me,” said the man. Ron looked up alarmed, and immediately pulled his knee back from Tiffany’s smooth thigh.
“Rich!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t see you arrive. When did you get here?” “Just in time, apparently” replied Rich, winking at Tiffany. Rich extended his hand to her. “Please allow me to introduce myself,” Rich said. “My name is Rich Shorter. I am the President and CEO of SomaTech, Inc.” Tiffany shook Rich’s hand, trying really hard not to drop her jaw to the top of the bar. “My name is Tiffany Burton,” she said. “As I was telling Mr. Wither, I’m in marketing over at Schelber’s, but I’m thinking of making a move soon.” She smiled at Rich, who smiled back. Both were unaware that Ron was peering down into his drink, no longer leering. “Why don’t you come over to my table,” said Rich, “and we’ll talk about your future at SomaTech.” Tiffany felt the butterflies go nuts in her stomach. She was going to discuss her new career with the legendary head of one of the most respected pharmaceutical companies in the world. A corporate head that almost lived in his marketing department and understood how to manipulate public perception as well as anyone in industry. The inventor of blind benefit marketing. This was the kind of guy she needed to get to know. While Tiffany was certainly more than pretty enough, Rich hadn’t wanted to pick her up as much as dough-pop Ron. Rich knew Ron to be capable of some amazing things in the marketing department, he was also capable of being a complete ass. On top of that, Rich loved taking every opportunity to remind Ron who was boss. Not that Rich felt threatened. More because he knew Ron would run around telling everyone how Rich had maligned him, making Ron a less formidable figure among the other highly talented people in the marketing department. Rich decided long ago that people like Ron need only be as powerful as they were useful. Not a bit more. Rich led Tiffany over to his table in a far corner of the Fine’. He was tall and thin, with graying highlights in his hair, and that distinguished look older executives seemed to cultivate instinctively. But there was something else that struck Tiffany immediately. Rich’s eyes, while not unkind, looked cold and calculating, like a predator who didn’t really hate his prey, but was going about his work in the most efficient way possible. Rich waited for Tiffany to move to a seat at the table, then he sat in the chair next to the wall, where he could see the entire bar, especially the area where Ron was now attempting to put the move on another poor unsuspecting female patron. “You obviously want to make a move pretty badly,” started Rich. “Ron’s a pretty important guy, but he’s notorious about dropping the follow-up interview.” Rich smiled at Tiffany to let her know she was safe now. “Thanks,” she replied, “ but I think I can control the parameters of any discussion I might ever have with someone like him. He looked like I could at least talk to him about getting an interview.” She smiled back at Rich to let him know she was never worried at all. He liked that. Someone who knew how far to carry the concept before things got too expensive to justify. “So,” continued Rich, “what do you want to do for SolmaTech?" "Strategic marketing,” she replied. “I want to work with perception and convince my audience that they absolutely cannot live without as many SomaTech pharmaceuticals as they can possibly afford. Hell, more than they can afford. And I want them so hypnotized that they don’t even care what the pills are for, they just gotta have ‘em.” She gave Rich a smile. She knew she was on the right level here. This was not the time for mutual admiration between 'people persons'. This was two sharks admiring each other’s teeth. She had already seen his tonight. Now she wanted him to see she wasn’t afraid to show hers. “That’s a pretty un-PC attitude, Ms. Burton,” Rich smiled. “There are people using that same rationale to sell crack.” “Then it must be pretty damned effective,” said Tiffany. “And I want to refine our approach until we put those boys on the street out of business too. That’s a large part of our potential market they’re playing with there.” Rich smiled, larger this time. He could work with this one, she had the moves, all wrapped up in this beautiful, innocent-looking package. Totally dangerous. “Ms. Burton?” Rich asked, “Can you be in my office at 9 AM Monday morning?” She was shocked. She knew she had scored some points, but she expected, and was prepared to do a few more unsavory things to get in the door at SomaTech. “I will be there!” answered Tiffany, a little faster than her cool façade might normally allow her. She smiled and Rich saw all of her open honest charm beaming out. He hesitated, but then thought that she had talked the talk, and if she couldn’t walk the walk, he could move her out easily enough. Still, there was something about her attitude that showed a lot more edge than she was showing now. Youthful exuberance, he thought. On Monday morning, Tiffany was in the SomaTech lobby at 8:30 signing confidentiality forms and getting her temporary access badge. By 9:00 she was outside Rich’s office, announcing herself to his secretary. The secretary disappeared into Rich’s office and then returned to show Tiffany in. On the walls hung some serious Picassos, along with the obligatory Warhal that Rich liked because it reminded him of how powerful perception could actually be. There was another beautiful painting hanging directly across from Rich’s desk, signed by Gwendolyn Shorter. Tiffany didn’t put the last name together until long after her initial interview with Rich. The desk was a long thick sheet of glass, and behind him floor to ceiling windows showing a beautiful view or downtown Manhattan. “Ms. Burton, how are you this morning?” began Rich. “I’m fine, “ she smiled. “Please call me Tiffany.” “OK, Tiffany,” continued Rich. “Now sit down here and tell me everything you know, or think you know, about Strategic Marketing here at SomaTech.” Tiffany panicked slightly. Here was the CEO of one of the most powerful companies in America wanting to know what she knew, or thought she knew about his pet department. “Well sir…” she started. “Please, call me Rich,” he smiled. “OK. Well, Rich,” she began, “I know all about your blind benefit marketing strategy. In fact, that is what attracted me to SomaTech – the shear brilliance of throwing beautiful pictures of SomaTech product out to the public without telling them what the drugs actually do. Then sitting back and seeing which drug appeals to which audience. Completely amazing!” Rich smiled, but he fixed her with a cold look like she was beginning to waste his time. “What else?” asked Rich. “Or let me put it this way. How do you think this could be made even more effective?” Now she really was beginning to panic. “Jesus!” she thought, “how could you possibly improve on such a perfect concept? If you could make people want something without knowing what it was, what would be the next step? You could...you could… “You could convince people that they needed something, a pill for example,” she reasoned out loud, “by describing their symptoms to them, even if the symptoms were common, and the pill didn’t actually exist yet. You could define a disease using completely unrelated symptoms combined creatively to create the largest demographic audience possible.” She was amazed with herself. Where had that come from? She saw Rich smiling broadly behind his large thick glass desk. This one was pretty smart. “Precisely,” he said. “Now Tiffany, you have signed away you life to our security agreements, but I have to stress to you what I am about to describe to you is completely secret. It is what you were attempting to get out of the other marketing department members when you were trying to work your way in, and why they wouldn’t talk to you beyond a point. What we are about to discuss is secret, not because it is complicated but because it is very, very simple.” Tiffany readjusted herself in her chair. It was not every day that one got the keys to the kingdom handed over by the king himself. She assumed that she had passed Rich’s little test and was deemed clever enough to be trusted. She also thought that receiving the secrets might be another test. Either way, she was listening closely. “We use a little methodology here at SomaTech we call ‘The Three Levels’,” Rich said. “As I describe the first two levels to you, you’ll recognize them from back in school. But the part I want you to pay attention to is what we’re doing with the third level. You’ll see it’s simple too, but it requires a lot of influence and money to pull it off. And it can be made more efficient. That’s why you’re here.
“The first level,” Rich started, “is based on pure need. If you are thirsty, and I have a bottle of cold water for sale, you’ll buy the water from me, and drink it. Pretty simple.
“Level two,” he continued, “is where marketing comes in. If you are sitting there drinking your water, and someone like, let’s say…Ron walks by, I could probably sell him a bottle of water too, whether he is thirsty or not. He would buy the water to have something in common with you. He’d use it to start a conversation, perhaps.” Tiffany recoiled noticeably at the image, causing Rich to smile slightly. “Right now,” he said, “we are working on level three, and that’s where I need your help. We found out a few years ago that most of the target audiences - certainly across America, but now in global audiences too - are becoming so segmented that it’s getting too expensive to develop new products from scratch. It’s getting too difficult to predict the size, or even the existence of an audience, when a company is attempting to justify the huge expenses necessary to make a new product. “We’ve tried managing costs,” Rich continued. “We’ve tried recycling previously successful marketing initiatives. But it is getting very difficult to get investment on the scale necessary to develop a new product if we can’t guarantee that the intended audience will even be there by the time the product arrives in the market. Now, in the drug business, you have all of the FDA trials and tests to wade through after the initial development is completed. That adds even more lead-time, so we either have to have a truly original concept in a new drug, or we probably can’t justify the development to our board and stockholders at all.” “But a company like SomaTech already has so many drugs out there,” said Tiffany, “that there must be billions coming in annually.” “Those previously approved pharmaceuticals are our foundational revenue,” answered Rich, “but after we loose our exclusivity to their formulas to generic manufacturers, we end up competing all over again for the same markets and usually loosing because the name brand drugs are more expensive. So we decided that we could still make lots of money if we could convince our various audiences to continue taking our pills instead of the generics.” “How can you do that?” asked Tiffany. “Generics are cheaper, and the same damned thing.” “Perception,” said Rich. “We have to make our audiences believe they need a particular drug, and that only a SomaTech drug will do. We have to create an explicit demand, then supply the only solution perceived capable of satisfying it.” “OK,” said Tiffany, “so where is level three in all of this?” “Level three,” said Rich, “is where we decided that instead of designing a particular product for a particular audience, which can be expensive and risky, we instead design the audience for our products. We know from the blind benefit marketing that people want to learn about certain drugs, even if they don’t know what the drugs are useful for. If we describe a particular set of symptoms that we know a particular demographic segment believes they have, then….” “We can tell them they have to buy our drugs for their symptoms, and we control which symptoms they’re aware of,” Tiffany completed the sentence. “Holy shit!” “Welcome to level three, Tiffany,” Rich smiled. “But, this would require lots of doctors saying that there were actually diseases out there behaving just the way we describe them,” Tiffany said astonished. “We prefer to call them syndromes,” answered Rich, “and doctors we got. Who do you think is gathering all the demographics for us for the blind benefits programs?” “But, you’d also have to have some serious media access to get audience awareness up to a effective level,” continued Tiffany. “This whole things sinks or swims by how many people you convince. How many you make believe they’re sick.” “SomaTech spent enough advertising money last year,” replied Rich, “ to keep three of the four major 24-hour cable news stations in business, not to mention what we spent at the broadcast networks. We can get anything on the air we want, and we have the credibility to make it stick.” Tiffany was astounded. Here was everything she thought she wanted last Friday night when she met this man. Now he appeared to be handing her the money, the credibility, the opportunity and the vast unsuspecting audience, necessary to mold perception anyway she wanted. And now she wasn’t completely sure if she wanted it. She felt a little uneasy. But only a little. “Pretty heady stuff, eh?” asked Rich. “Wow,” replied Tiffany. “What I want you to do is be my trend spy,” said Rich, “my ‘cool hunter’. I want you to go and find me an audience out there that will respond to level three. I want you to work up their demographics and most importantly, a comprehensive list of symptoms that they will respond to, to make them want our drugs. Go sell some crack.” Rich looked down on his desk and began reading some of the paperwork there. Tiffany assumed from his change of focus that the meeting was over. She rose from her seat and made her way towards the door. Before she could reach it, Rich looked up again. “Tiffany,” he said, “were not really hurting anybody here. We’re giving some of these people more attention than they get anywhere else. But either way, they’re going to spend their money on something. Might as well be us.” Tiffany went through the office door, then stopped to ask Rich’s secretary for directions to her desk. Soon she was standing in a cube in a large room circled by other cubes, all arranged so that their doors all faced the large common area in the middle of the room. The large common area contained a table for meetings. At the far end of the room was a very large whiteboard, neatly erased, as it was after every marketing meeting held in the room. She found her computer already powered up. She supplied her user ID from a paper instruction guide she found in her desk. She also created a password, 'crackho1', which she typed in to the system twice for verification. “Might as well live it large,” she said to herself. She found the normal compliment of office applications, along with choice of feeds from the various cable news stations Rich was helping support. Tiffany decided to use the cable feeds to help her clear her head of the small moral argument she was having with herself. She knew that a company like SomaTech needed a vast audience of customers to stay in business. And, for the most part, the drugs SomaTech produced helped people. But she struggled a bit with the idea that someone’s expendable income should be targeted by a huge company, trying to unload expensive drugs they couldn’t sell any other way. She consoled herself with the idea that all business tried to unload excess inventory on anyone they could, for whatever reason. Look at car lots. The week between Christmas and New Years, when no one has any money, is certainly the time to buy a car. The people selling the cars use the excuse that they will have to pay extra taxes on the cars if they aren’t sold by New Years Day. But, if they can lower the cars to such outrageous prices during the time between Christmas and New Years, why can’t they do it any other day of the year? Perception, Tiffany thought. They want you to think you’re getting away with something. And, if no one has any money left after Christmas anyway, the only deals they can make are through lower prices. Pills, cars or whatever – it is all just merchandise. Tiffany spent the afternoon watching the cable news stations, occasionally looking up as one of her new co-workers stuck his or her head into the cube to make introductions. She had met most of them in the bars before, so the parade of fellow SomaTech employees became a blur after the first half-hour. Her mind was really far away from her cube anyway. She was trying to think of a group of people in the American heartland that could be described by a set of symptoms with which they could identify. Airline pilots, she thought. Nah, they are not the type to be comfortable associated with any syndromes, especially one requiring prescription drugs. The cable news channel began a report on the upcoming congressional elections, and numerous seats up for grabs this year. Computer programmers, she thought. Well, the more extreme programmers she knew certainly liked drugs, but most seemed to center in on caffeine more than anything else. This was also a segment of society where certain syndromes were desirable, but largely left untreated because they often resulted in more productive workers. The cable news channel droned on about the number of women running for congress this year and the effect on demographics this would have in the campaigns. One woman running for her first term in Texas had previously only served on her local city council, but she was expected to make a strong showing because of her background as a soccer mom. Her soccer mom status carried enough resonance in her community to get her elected to city council, and her campaign manager expected it to carry her on to Washington. Tiffany sat there feeling like she had been slapped. At first she couldn’t speak, her mind was racing too fast with the concept. When she finally could speak, it was only in a low guarded whisper. “Soccer moms!” she said in almost a growl. “Soccer moms!” Her mind reeled as she began to image this vast group of American women, in all shapes, sizes and viewpoints. The single unifier for all these women was their devotion to their children, and their relentless schedules. They were killing themselves making sure they got the kids to and from school and then to and from all the after school activities, including soccer practice. This is where they got their collective moniker. “Soccer moms,” Tiffany smiled. She researched further and found that while this segment of society had evolved innocently enough, a competitive factor had been introduced when the children, vying for college scholarships, began to use their involvement in after school activities to pad their student resumes. Soon, the farther back one could prove his or her involvement is bilingual tennis or multi-cultural cheerleading for the environment, the more capital one brought to the scholarship negotiations down the road. This competitiveness grew to include the soccer moms too. Soon, they were taking over the activities into which they entered their children. They wanted to make sure that the best possible results would be attained from their investment of time and money in their children’s futures. The competitiveness became political. Spawning coalitions of mothers working together to make sure appropriate space was reserved for their respective children, as the vast cultural selection process began to manifest and exert itself in all directions. Tiffany began to see the possibilities. Here was a huge collection of women who absolutely had to participate anyway they could, no matter how they felt, no mater if they liked what they were doing or not. This was the only way they could see of making sure their offspring got the advantages that society demanded for them to fit in properly. Shit! thought Tiffany. This is one big, stressed, pissed-off, vocal, powerful, consolidated, tired bunch of women. Her mind began to run through all of the possible symptoms that every soccer mom out there would share with every other soccer mom. She thought about the endless schedule each of the women had to face every day. Most had multiple children, so the logistics alone had to be staggering, getting each child to the right place at the right time. Time was the thing. With all of this running around there couldn’t time for much of a life outside soccer momming. Certainly, there couldn’t be any time for movies, or reading or sex. Any spare time had to be devoted to getting any rest any way possible. These women are a lot of things, she thought, but most of all they are tired. Hmmm….Tired Mom’s Syndrome. Shit! That’s it! Tiffany went out on the Internet and began to research different interest patterns associated with soccer moms. She found forums on weight control, forums on fatigue management, forums on concentration enhancement, but the most interesting one she found was the soccer mom forum on recapturing libido. Tiffany recognized all of the areas of discussion as candidate symptoms of her new Tired Mom’s Syndrome. Hell, she thought, there probably isn’t a soccer mom out there that won’t relate to at least one of these symptoms. We can package this up and sell it right now. She began to write a report on the demographics of the typical soccer mom – her age, her educational background, her income level, her involvement in the various organizations focused on bettering her children’s chances at positive social connections and interactions. Then Tiffany began to infuse the data she had gleaned from the different forums, the symptoms identified for her new syndrome. She wrapped it all up, and for the bow on top, Tiffany commented that additional symptoms could be added to the syndrome as required to expand the audience demographics as needed. When she had finished her work, she looked up and was shocked to find the office empty and dark, except for the hall lights and exit signs. It was 4:00 AM, and she had worked all night on her new disease. She bundled her report into an email message to Rich. She thought about typing “The New Crack” in the subject line, but changed her mind, not knowing how invasive the company email censors might be. Instead, she typed “New Syndrome Discovered”, and sent the dispatch. Then she went home and went to bed. The next morning, Rich arrived at the office at his usual 8:00 a.m. and began his day by checking his email. He was surprised to find the message from Tiffany, especially with the unique title. “She can’t have found me a new syndrome already, “ he said. “Yesterday was her first day.” But when he opened her email and read her report, he forgot all about time and what day of the week it was, and even who Tiffany Burton was. He was in possession of the first real implementation of his pet project, level three. And this one was gonna be a doozie! Galvanizing the entire female childbearing segment of American society into a designer demographic, this was shear genius! He danced around his office, the ran over to his window and looked down at the people on the street, trying to imagine how many of them were now members of his new group, victims of his new syndrome. He danced his way over to the door of his office and stuck his head out to his secretary. He wanted to meet with SomaTech’s chief medical advisor, right away. He wanted to legitimize this disease - today. “Get me Doctor Jennings,” he said to his secretary in a far away voice. “We have things to discuss.”
About the author: "Manhattan" is an excerpt from Texas author Joe B. Vaughan, Jr.'s novel, Vincent Brown.
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