Saturday, March 12, 2016

But Does It Sell Corn?

     [I’m badly in need of a day off – smell the roses and all that – so, in keeping with the many paeans to “The Most Interesting Man In The World” that his recent retirement to Mars has garnered, I thought I’d repost this old piece that first appeared at the Palace Of Reason on October 28, 2003 -- FWP]


     A legendary executive in the wholesale-agricultural industry, whose name has slipped from your Curmudgeon's memory (cut him some slack, friends; he's getting really old), plastered a simple slogan on the walls of his corporate offices:

DOES IT SELL CORN?

     Hard to lose the message in that one, isn't it?

     In recent years, many a business executive has revived that old principle, concentration on results, and has reaped a large reward for doing so. Strange that it should have to be revived; an innocent mind might easily think business was about results and nothing else.

     Surprise! Diminishing marginal utility is at work again. Companies that grow to some unpredictable level of success and profitability will begin to shed their results focus -- not completely, but enough to make room for other activities that have no relation, direct or indirect, to their nominal business area.

     Your Curmudgeon recently learned, through a mutual friend, of a man who works for a large multinational bank. Out of sheer caprice, let's call him Smith. In thirty-plus years at that bank, Smith has served in several positions with diverse, but all finance-related, responsibilities. His current position, however, could not be called finance-related by anyone not under the influence of hallucinogenics. Smith's job, stripped of all pretense, is to give millions of dollars of the bank's money each year to maverick television producers. He spends his time surveying the spectrum of independent teleplay production, picks those companies whose work he likes best, and simply makes six and seven-figure presents to them from the bank's profits.

     Yes, you read that right. There's no quid pro quo. Since the teleplays made with this largesse almost all appear on non-commercial channels ("public television"), the bank is lucky even to get a quick mention of its generosity at the end of the program. Smith is under explicit orders not to ask for anything in return for the bank's beneficence.

     (Your Curmudgeon can't help but wonder what Smith's performance reviews are like, or if he has "opposite numbers" who fund movies, stage productions, and "alternative" pop music. But let's stay on point.)

     Clearly, with such large amounts of money involved, there's no possibility that the bank's Board of Directors, whose responsibility is the protection of the stockholders' interests, is unaware of the activity. There has to be overall approval for Smith's grants. Yet it's equally clear that they "don't sell corn." They're pure giveaways of profits that would otherwise become reinvestment capital or stockholder dividends.

     Why would a profit-oriented company give away its profits? Could it be that even a corporation, which "has neither a soul to be damned nor a body to be kicked," eventually develops an institutional desire to be liked -- and strong enough that it overrides its central raison d'etre?

     Given the behavior of American corporations, it's hard to say no. Among the Fortune 1000, nearly all have some office whose duties are comparable to Smith's.

     The most difficult part to explain is the acquiescence of the stockholders. Why don't they take a stand against the dissipation of such large volumes of cash on the esthetic judgment of elderly executives? Americans are normally plainspoken about their pocketbooks, and this is a pocketbook issue if there ever was one. Are the stockholders afraid that, if they eject those who endorse these giveaways, they'll appear mean-spirited? To whom?

     That a company that starts out to sell us corn should eventually graduate to providing us with free entertainment doesn't seem all that odd in comparison with companies that fund their own attackers. Quite a large amount of money flows each year from corporate coffers to the accounts of "think tanks" and "foundations" with supposedly noble aims. Those noble aims all too often include the destruction of capitalism, the very mechanism that puts swill in those foundations' troughs. The Ford Foundation is only the best-known example.

     Well, too much baffled outrage isn't good for a body, so perhaps we should pass on. But before we conclude, let's look at a middle ground -- a delightful one -- in which commercial and esthetic motives appear to blend nicely.

     If you watch televised sports, you'll see innumerable beer commercials. It's unavoidable; televised sports and beer are as closely related as any two phenomena in our marketplace. But it's a good bet you don't mind. Indeed, if your tastes run at all in parallel with your Curmudgeon's, you might enjoy the commercials more than the action on the field. They've gotten to be very, very funny.

     It's well known that humor assists the memory, and therefore helps to cement the name of the product in the viewer's mind. But the degree of comedic ingenuity that goes into beer commercials seems to exceed all marketing requirements, and happily so. There is no conceivable way Budweiser's "Real Men of Genius" commercials, or Miller's mock cinema verite "High Life" commercials, could be justified entirely on the basis of an increase in sales. They're too outrageous, too entertaining, and too original. The people who compose them shame the writers of television's torrents of mind-deadeningly banal "situation comedies." They must get paid a well-deserved fortune.

     "Does it sell corn?" Who cares?

     Yet there is a danger here. A man watching a football game is likely to be drinking beer, which has long and accurately been described as "the beverage you rent." The commercials are the sports watcher's normal "pit stop" periods. What will happen to the American male bladder if we develop the habit of staying to watch the commercials, instead of hurrying off to the Porcelain Palace to make room for the next bottle? Should we risk missing turnovers and touchdown passes rather than forgo the pleasures of the ads? If not, could catastrophic renal backpressure be far away?

     Perhaps your Curmudgeon will apply for a federal research grant.

1 comment:

  1. I've been watching the "decline" of Breitbart and Pajamas Media.

    In the case of PJM (and maybe Breitbart) it could be argued that the people that they chose to post articles have become less articulate of the original vector of the site.

    Less Conservative or Constitutional, perhaps.

    But it seems to me that what has happened is that the comments have been so taken over by trolls and mindless name-calling that any rational dscussion of news and the articles written thereof has become imposssible.

    Maybe this is the natural progresssion of leftists yelling and disrupting any attempt at convening a rational discusssion of politics and what to do about real-world situations.

    But it has become clear to me that businesses, TV shows and the culture have decided that it is in their best interest to at least pay lip service to the cultural zeitgeist of global warming, anti-smoking, racial quotas, multiculturalism and diversity rather than arguing from their own self-interested viewpoints.

    From there, it's a short step to allowing the "shouting down" of minority views.

    And of course, "selling corn" becomes just a part of "being right." Selling corn, building anything, doing anything, thinking anything is only right if it's in service of fairness, equality and a social justice that is the subjective perview of our betters.

    I'm drunk and old, but I've seen which side has been doing this all my life.

    ReplyDelete

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