"The Pitch"

Copyright 2001 Edward Keyes


"Neurolinguistic programming."


"Memetic engineering."

Wait... a little reaction. No, he's just scratching his head. Damn, I really liked that one, too.

"Me make you heap big money."

No, no, I just thought that, I didn't say it. The Neanderthals in the boardroom might have taken offense. Instead I pulled out the big guns, hitting the clicker simultaneously to pull up the next slide. Two big words, font size measured in feet, colors carefully calculated. Hit 'em in the eardrums and the retinas at the same time, and it might just sink in.

"Viral marketing."

Score! Two, no, three raised eyebrows. I was in. I could virtually see their stunted little cerebrums opening up like flower petals, reaching for the light I was about to shine on them. The spiel began.

"Gentlemen, the golden age of advertising is over. Individual creative geniuses, coming up with perfect commercials, catchy jingles, snazzy slogans. It's done for.

"The problem is information overload. There's just so much advertising out there, that no one pays attention to it any more. The only way to fight back is to make your commercials amazingly entertaining, but then people don't know what the product is. You know that ad with the squirrels and the soccerball? What the hell is it for? No one cares.

"Banner ads on the web. Forget it! A few years back, you could fund a company completely on ad revenue. Then they started counting 'click-throughs', and realized that people were tuning out the banners almost completely.

"But, click-throughs miss the point. You don't put an ad out to get people to 'Buy, buy, buy!' right now. It's all about brand recognition. You put your name somewhere in their brains, so that six months later, when they're looking to buy a toaster, there's just this little nudge in the back of their head, pointing them at the right brand: your brand.

"That's expensive, though. Getting your brand out to everyone, trying to compete with all of the spam and flashing lights and squirrels playing soccer. The key is to make your ad campaign self-sustaining. That's what I can do for you. Minimal investment, maximal saturation. Viral marketing."

It never hurts to pound in a point, with folk like this. I felt a little bad approaching them, since I've never really thrown off the somewhat slimy impression I always had of marketing people. Used-car salesmen. Now I'm one of them.

Anyway, I already had my doctorate, framed on the wall. I've paid my academic dues. Now it was time to cash in while I still could. There was a narrow window of opportunity where I had a serious advantage, but in a year, everyone would be playing this same game. And I could definitely stand to hang my sheepskin on the wall of a nice big house. Slime washes off, but student loans are with you forever.

"Consider Nike. They just happened to stumble upon the right combination of factors. The right spokesperson, the right slogan, and most importantly, the right logo: the swoosh. It was infectious. Anything with that swoosh on it, sold. Shoes, bags, shirts, even keychains. Think about that. People paid money to help Nike advertise itself. They obtained an army of walking billboards, and made a huge profit doing it.

"But that was just a fluke, and it was crude. If we run the logo through my memetic algorithms, we get the swoosh, version two."

I clicked to the next slide. Damn, I loved that swoosh. Simple, elegant, every curve optimized to six decimals. It just said "speed". I've had to force myself not to have it painted on my car, and I made the stupid thing, so I know exactly what neurological buttons it pushes. I moved to the next slide fast... if I didn't, they'd want the swoosh, not what I was really trying to sell them on, and I had a buyer lined up for it already, of course.

"We can do the same thing with words. People love to talk, they love to share ideas. And these days, everyone talks to everyone else. The catch phrase of the week on a favorite sitcom becomes casual conversation almost immediately, then passé a month later.

"How can we exploit this? We need a method of creating these catch phrases, of inserting your own brand name into words so compelling, so cool, that your brand gets spread all by itself, no advertising required."

I clicked past the next three slides almost too fast to see. Back home, they sounded like a good idea. Draw the analogy between genes and memes, between genetic engineering and memetic engineering. But it was too much for these executives, I could see right off. Make it seem like magic to them, they could deal with that better.

It hurt me, skipping all that. It was my damned thesis after all, identifying the neurolinguistic language fundamental to every human brain: the memetic code. Basic concepts, shapes, associations, and patterns that normal language and ideas are built on top of.

Understand the code, and you can figure out what ideas will do inside the brain: whether they'll be ignored, or remembered, or absorbed, or most importantly, passed on to others. It was an incredibly powerful tool. Sooner or later we'll be able to cure religion with it, I think. But for now, advertising pays a lot better.

"This is what my consultants can do for you. We can take virtually any word, any brand name, and package it up inside a meme so powerful, that it will spread like a virus throughout the market. Everyone will have your name on their lips, and will like saying it because it's cool!"

Because you're all bloody stupid robots!

I didn't say that either, not even close. I was one, too. Being a memetic engineer gives you a little immunity to the most obvious ones, but no more than a "savvy consumer" would have. I caught myself whistling the tunes my algorithms composed... could not get them out of my head.

After I make my first few million, I'm going to head back to the lab and work on meme vaccines. Now that is going to be a huge market, a few years down the line.

"Now, gentlemen, I understand that some of this might be hard to swallow. I don't intend to force you to take my word on faith, or even to make any decisions today at all. I just want to lay some groundwork, and draw your attention to a demonstration that's about to get underway. If all goes well, we'll talk again in a month, and we can do business.

"To convince you that my algorithms are sound, I've started a test meme, just to get a baseline on the efficiency of the technique. In fact, the meme was constructed around the word 'baseline', or rather a simpler variant, since we were a little strapped for CPU time."

I hit the clicker again, and it popped onto the screen. One, two, three... three seconds and everyone was frowning in confusion. I had to suppress my natural reactions, since I was already infected. They don't get it, they aren't cool.

"I know, I know. It doesn't make any sense. But I assure you, that phrase has been constructed to be a perfectly balanced memetic virus. We have already planted the meme, with a suitable cover story for its origin, on the internet. We project that within a week, it will start showing up in news postings and signature files. Within two weeks, it will break into print media, and inside a month, it will be essentially impossible not to have heard it from someone, somewhere."

I clicked off the projector. Spiel all done, groundwork all laid. The questions they threw at me were meaningless, but I answered them anyway.

In a month, I knew, they'd be calling me back, willing to meet any price. I'd start running their brands through the computers, coming out with infectious phrases one after another, each one making me richer than the last, each one ripping across the face of the market like a force of nature. And then...

All your meme are belong to us.