The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Aggressive Marketing

The first one assaulted him the moment he stepped out the door. Byers had his car keys ready in his fist, and he was poised to make a run for it, but the advoid had apparently been lying in wait. It leapt out from nowhere and postured garishly before him, flashing the name of its wares. "Gibbon's All-Purpose Gel™," it rejoiced. "Suitable for haemorrhoids and children over six months old. Read label carefully before applying." Its square mouth grinned, anticipating Byers’ credit card.

"Not today, thank you," Byers said bravely, and took another step towards the car. He was uneasy at the thought that the advoid had been lying in wait for him. If its artificial intelligence was that highly evolved, it was unlikely to be the kind you could just walk past.

"Gibbon’s All-Purpose Gel™," the advoid rejoiced a little louder than before. "Available now in natural white, shell pink, and sky blue for those special occasions. Not to be ingested in large quantities." It grinned again, squatting between Byers and the car. With a sigh, Byers pressed the middle finger of his right hand into the base of his thumb. The servorg embedded in the soft flesh responded with a soft bleep and Byers' Amalgamated Arts® stiffcard snicked into his palm from the rotating holster strapped to his forearm. He ran the stiffcard through the advoid’s slitted maw; lulled by the fake credits, it fell silent and meekly allowed him to pass.

He had barely got the shielding up to block the car's windows when he heard the advoid crashing angrily onto the roof; but too late. He had beaten it. He would just have to hope the thing wouldn’t still be sitting in his driveway when he returned from work that night.

Thank God for the stiffcard, he thought, tucking it back up the sleeve of his suit jacket. The stiffcard was a corporation perk, a dummy credit card capable, in return for a fixed monthly charge, of deterring most of the lower and middle-rank advoids created by Associated Arts®, his corporation’s major rivals. The monthly fee to Amalgamated Arts was quite high, but still considerably less than Byers would need to have paid for sufficient consumer products to keep the advoids from making his life unlivable. Byers had been awarded the stiffcard because of his work on the Limpet™, a type of advoid which clung tightly to the legs of its targets and wailed until they bought. The Limpet had been a great success with one of the major toy corporations, which had shrewdly exploited its resemblance to a deprived child to form a highly effective "nonconsumer deterrent". Byers hoped his inspiration would not fail him now; more was at stake today than a stiffcard.

Uneasy rumours had been circulating about a new and fiendish type of advoid which Associated Arts had brought close to the launching stage. It was said to be immune to stiffcards – even the Golden Stiffcards™ which were given only to retiring members of the Board of Directors – and to have powers of persuasion which could enable Associated Arts to monopolise the entire advertising market. Everyone at Amalgamated was losing sleep, from the Board of Directors down.

"Workplace," said Byers into the RouteCompute™ on the dashboard. The car started, moved out of the driveway, turned onto the main road, stopped. Byers cleared the windscreen, just to make certain all was well. The rear end of a truck gazed blandly back at him: the morning traffic jam, right on schedule.

Byers put the grille back on the windscreen before the animad on the truck's doors could get properly into its stride; whether it was selling the truck’s cargo or the services of its driver, Byers neither knew nor cared. To get himself through the most tedious part of the drive, and to catch up on some of what he'd lost by working half the night, he took a twenty-minute sleep capsule.

When he woke - eighteen minutes later, he noted with irritation - he unshielded the side window for a look at the street. A certain small risk was involved here, but Byers felt it was justified by the potential for useful insights and ideas; not to mention the chance of observing new advoids at work without the perils of direct exposure.

There were plenty of pedestrians around, but most were too shabby, and thus too defenceless, to qualify as targets for advanced types of advoid. Consumers lacking the kind of work which would afford them a stiffcard or a car equipped with protective shielding were prey to the blandishments of less evolved types of persuader.

Byers saw a woman trying vainly to remove a clutch of Weighty Arguments™ from her shopping bag (shopping bag! She had to carry it, too. How did people live like that?), wearily pulling the thickset, toadlike creatures from among her purchases only to have them doggedly crawl back in again when she declined to buy what they were hawking. A few yards further on, a man was beating with a newsrag at a couple of Whispas™ which were trying to land on him. Byers watched this transaction with particular interest. Whispas were manufactured by Amalgamated Arts; touted in the company brochure as "the still, small voice of consumer consciousness", they were designed to crawl into the target's ear and nag softly but with paralysing insistence until the product was bought. Each product sold through a Whispas campaign came with a special, "free gift" key which could be inserted in the ear to pull the object out and gain relief. However, Byers had never before seen someone trying to prevent the Whispas getting in, and he observed with interest that some of the target’s manoeuvres were quite effective. By the time the car turned the next corner, one of the Whispas had been swatted and triumphantly crushed underfoot, while the other made its way stealthily up the side of the pedestrian’s neck.

Byers pressed the third finger of his right hand into the base of his thumb. The servorg bleeped, indicating that his JotBot™ had been activated; holding his palm an inch from his mouth, Byers dictated a brief account of the episode, giving special mention to the man’s tactics with his newsrag. Perhaps the Conceptual Dynamics department could find a way of programming the Whispas for evasive action. If they could, and if Byers could take the credit for having originated the idea, perhaps that would make his job a little safer in the face of any impending doom wrought by Associated. Perhaps he might even be able to find work with Associated - naturally at a somewhat lower level than his present position, but still…

This optimistic reverie was interrupted by a sudden loud crack as an unusually fast-moving advoid slammed itself against the unshielded side window. Byers jumped, then cursed as he saw the opaque white dent which the impact had made in the shatterproof Perspane™. The advoid grinned zealously at him, squalling something about the world’s best-selling natural antiperspirant ("tested on tribesmen in the Sahara!"), until the shielding slid back into place. There were a few half-hearted thumps, then silence as the traffic moved forward again and the advoid went off to explore new potential.

Byers tried to relax and think new thoughts, new concepts. How to beat Associated Arts? There had been, some years ago, an attempt to market advoids which used a jamming beam to drown out all rivals within a half-mile radius, but ordinary consumers had started buying these and programming them to broadcast only the jamming signal. This was clearly a perversion of the market, and the model was discontinued. Still, perhaps the time was right once more for a type of advoid which not only publicised its own product, but prevented other advoids from publicising theirs. Byers was about to make another note on his JotBot when he was almost jolted from his seat. The car lurched horribly, then crunched to a halt. From beyond the shielded windows came the muffled sound of screams.

Byers was debating whether to lower the shielding and take a look or, alternatively, switch on the manual drive and take a chance by fleeing blindly, when the decision was noisily made for him. With atrocious creaking and grinding, the roof of his car was neatly peeled back and a set of long, sticky fingers reached in and plucked him from his seat. As he was lifted into the air, he saw the flaming ruins of the Amalgamated Arts building, and glimpsed half a dozen gigantic creatures moving among the rubble, picking people up and shouting at them.

Then he was staring down a great black hole which resembled the muzzle of a gun, or perhaps of a railway tunnel. Next to the hole was a grille of horizontal slits which, Byers realised, were actually credit card slots - one slot for every brand of card, each conveniently marked. Above the grille was the distinctive but unostentatious logo of Associated Arts.

The sticky fingers squeezed him and the black hole spoke. “Associated Arts®,” it said. “Buy or die.”