Illustration by Mitch Handsone
Beginning in the summer of 2006, when Roe v. Wade was overturned and the Bush administration celebrated by mandating that all elementary schools teach “creation science” in order to qualify for federal funding, teen pregnancy (and suicide) rates rose dramatically, such that by early 2008, one of every five first-time mothers in the United States was under the age of 18.
Executives at Worldwide Baby Food’s Postfetal Marketing Division decided it was time to rethink their strategies, to profit more profoundly from the burgeoning new teen-mother demographic. Many, many meetings followed many, many meetings. Consultants were paid $60 million to determine the most cost-efficient approach to propagating a new, more youthful WBF brand image.
The results were announced on a late Sunday afternoon at a steak-and-lobstered gathering of executives and their showspouses in the grand ballroom of the Marriott Hotel three blocks from WBF’s executive offices.
“Newness,” executive V.P. Kip McDaniel proclaimed into the podium microphone, “provides customers young and old with a sense of being more recent. More up-to-date. More alive.”
Clappity-clap, the executives replied, raising an almost visible mist redolent of expensive hygiene products.
“Without newness there would be no babies, and without babies there would be no market for baby food.”
And clappity-clap and clappity-clap and clappity-clap some more, winding down to a dozen silver knives striking crystal, four yelps, two zany hoots, one holler and one whistle.
McDaniel grinned. “To that end, ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to introduce Worldwide Baby Food’s new marketing director, Mr. Ric Abruti.”
Clappity-clappity-clappity. McDaniel stepped down from the podium, and up from seemingly nowhere stepped the inordinately diminutive Abruti. Owing to the oak-veneer pulpit’s relative height, only Abruti’s downy pink dome was visible to his new owners.
“Thank you,” Abruti may have said, but no one could hear, because the microphone was two feet too high. McDaniel bent the microphone’s gooseneck down to Abruti-level, causing a ghastly, deafening creak to burst from the P.A. and shiver through the stiff attendees’ spines.
“Thank you,” Abruti repeated, in a voice much higher than everyone had hoped.
WBF’s nascent Fetal Marketing Division was already kicking Postfetal’s ass. Its latest coup was a contract with PfizerKaiser Financial Health Services to mount end-user video monitors on all contracted ultrasound stations, so that virtually every fetus was subjected to subliminally suggestive ads for Worldwide. The product jingle, the same as the one played around the clock on all MS/ExtremeClearChannelMedia stations around the world, was written by FCC Chairman Jenna Bush and her husband, Dennis Miller, and performed by pop music’s most profitable teenage voicebox, Ashley Peerpuff.
“Give it to me, baby!” sang Peerpuff and her pregnant backup singers, and pregnant American children from Honolulu to Baghdad sang along. “Ooh baby! Yeah! Gimme another jar of your smooth, smooth love!”
Postfetal executives were counting on Ric Abruti’s new packaging designs to give them the edge.
McDaniel spent Monday morning helping Abruti get comfortable in his new office, then took him to lunch at an expensive outdoor café, where they could lounge over dessert with cigars, though the diminutive arriviste declined the latter. Afterward, McDaniel walked Abruti back to his office and excused himself to join the other top WBF Postfetal execs behind closed doors at the conference table.
As soon as the door closed, Krissy-Missy O’Davis spoke. “He’s a child, Kip.”
“Who is?” said McDaniel.
“Your new marketing director.”
“Nonsense,” McDaniel replied. “He’s 50. He’s just short. Human Resources has all his information.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ned Johnson cut in. “He looks about 12 to me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said McDaniel, taking his seat and pouring himself a fresh hot nice cup of coffee. “It’s just the way he wears his clothes. He’s very . . . hip.”
“Hip or not, I don’t buy it,” said Wallace Nahard, who rarely spoke. “I’m inclined to agree with Bob and Krissy-Missy. Abruti’s just a kid. What does a kid know about baby-food packaging?”
“He’s not a kid, Wally,” McDaniel replied. “You’ll see.”
Ric Abruti sat at the big desk in the big, airy office, dangling his legs, drawing. He really was 10 years old — anyone could see that. But young Abruti was also a master salesman, capable of powerful mental manipulations. If he wanted you to believe he was 50 years old, you simply did.
For more than a century, the labels on WBF baby-food jars had featured directly correlative color illustrations. For example, a jar of mashed carrots would carry a label with an illustration of a bunch of carrots; the label on a jar of mashed peas depicted a pod of peas; and so on.
It was Abruti’s task to do away with all that; to develop a more intimate visual relationship with WBF’s youthful new consumers. His plan, as outlined in his first and only memo, was quite simple: “I don’t like food,” the memo’s single sentence began, ending with “I like skateboards.”
And so it came to pass that the cleanly distressed skateboards, drop-shadows and illegible typefaces on Abruti’s monitor were soon printed on every jar of Worldwide Baby Food. For example, a jar of mashed carrots carried an illustration of a green-and-magenta skateboard with an orange drop-shadow and the illegible word carrots; the label on a jar of mashed peas depicted a purple skateboard with a yellow drop-shadow and the illegible word peas; and so on.
When the numbers came back from the fourth-quarter Simmons audit, Postfetal’s Abruti ploy had almost worked. Ninety-six percent of mothers between the ages of 11 and 18 were buying the jars of mashed carrots or peas or skateboards — it didn’t much matter to them. Unfortunately, the other 80 percent of WBF’s Postfetal customer base shook their mystified heads and flocked, in unprecedented droves, down the aisle to the Gerber jars, still familiarly adorned with baby heads (baby + food = baby food). If you wanted, you could even read the label.