Monday, June 26, 2006
The woman who found a penis in a soup can
I used to work in a media group attached to Nortel Networks, a Canadian telecom company. One day our marketing manager came to me and asked me to make an animation that could be printed as a flip book in corner of a catalog they were preparing. People might actually keep the catalog around longer if it had something interesting to look at she reasoned. Cool idea, huh?
I brainstormed the task with other members of the media group. We developed the idea of having a guy take a can of alphabet soup and shake telecom acronyms out of it into his mouth and then eat the can too. The idea was that [redacted] could make quick work of complex problems. Everyone agreed it was a fab idea although none of them could imagine how it I might ever do it.
Basically, I made a "Telecom Soup" label for a can and shot some video of one of our technical illustrators tossing it over his shoulder. Then I spent a couple weeks warping and retouching the footage. This was back when a 100MHz Mac was considered insanely powerful.
When I finally unveiled it, everyone was ecstatic. It was the most astonishing thing anyone had ever seen come out of our group. Word spread around the company and people I barely knew were stopping by my desk to see this new wonder. "Outstanding... Fantastic... Amazing", they said.
One day a woman I had never met before stopped by and asked to see it. I showed it to her and she said "This is sexually offensive and it can not be printed in the catalog."
The soup can symbolized a man's penis and the letters coming out of the can were semen, she explained. And eating the can was just another representation of oral sex.
All the people who had liked the animation, even those who had a hand in coming up with the idea, disappeared and rematerialized as people who were aghast at what I had done. My managers faded back to the safety of their cubes, admitting no knowledge of this project. Phrases like "very disappointed" and "poor judgement" were tossed around.
How the inspector woman acquired this power I don't know but she seemed to enjoy the attention her accusations brought to her. One of our designers was tasked with decorating a conference room. They only gave her a $50 budget so she went to Wal-Mart and bought some pre-framed, color-coordinated "art" photos of fishing equipment. The people using the conference rooms were "fishing for solutions" she reasoned.
"Racially offensive," the inspector woman declared. "Many black people can not afford to go fishing. These photos will make them uncomfortable and less likely to participate in discussions."
My animation got printed in the catalog anyway, but only because the marketing manager who had requested it originally was thinking of leaving and didn't care about the possible fallout. There was no fallout, no customer ever complained. The soup can was just a soup can.
But the marketing manager did get fired a few months later. It was one of those typical corporate things where two security guards showed up at her cube, gave her five minutes to collect her personal belongings and then escorted her off the premises. I don't think it was related to the flip book flap, but I have no idea really. I only know about the security guard scenario because our management, while not disclosing the actual reason for firing her, wanted to smear her reputation by hinting that some serious breach was involved.
So anyway, children, corporate life is not like the training videos they show you during your first week, where people calmly discuss a problem and agree on a solution that's "win-win" for everyone. It's like a Klingon starship where crewmembers will gladly maim or kill one another for a promotion.
There were quite a few episodes like this where I got buy-in and approval from everyone on the details of a project I was assigned to, and then was abandoned by all of them when some obscure person somewhere raised some insane objection.
"Trust no one," became my strategy for the rest of my career at Nortel Networks.
Update, September 2, 2012: After many years of executive misperforamce, Nortel Networks declared bankruptcy a few years ago and was parted out to the four winds.
One key element in Nortel's demise was a serious book-keeping scandal in which the very highest executives had falsified financials to boost their bonus pay.
At its height during the dot-com boom Nortel accounted for a third of the value of the Toronto Stock Exchange, but it never had the luster of its main rival, Cisco Systems. If anyone had a choice they would always install Cisco equipment rather than Nortel.
I recall some of our CEO's adages: "Sell the product now, we'll fix the bugs later." and "We don't need to be innovative, we can buy someone who is."