The Campaign for Real Advertising

Originally published in Upsideclone
Friday the 6th of September 2002

A handful of envelopes; selection for entry to a 50,000 prize draw, and a call for charity from Christian Aid, pen included. Easy. A pre-printed envelope which looks like it might be from my bank. I open it. It isn't. A card-shaped envelope addressed in what appears to be my mother's handwriting, but looking closer it's just a printed approximation of her style (they've extrapolated the 'G' rather badly), and besides, she's dead.

I used to rearrange them all into each other's prepaid envelopes and post them back, I used to slip CAMRAD recruitment leaflets in for the mailroom staff, but I refuse to surrender my time to them, any more. I drop the envelopes into the recycling bin by the door, and step out into the soft September rain, collar up, head down.

My walkman plays from a thin band of white noise between stations, blocking out the background conversations, discouraging even eye-contact. Mornings are always the worst, rush-hour commuters being the most captive audience you can get. It used to be laughably unsubtle, like sitting through a fake vox-pop advert from the old days ("Mmm, these taste just like strawberries and cream!"), but natural selection has whittled it down to subtlety and implication. A comment on your model of mobile phone, your brand of cigarette, your overlong glance at a Tube poster, and before you know where you are, you've been handed a new opinion.

And enough people still take it at face value, and pass it on. The appeal of preformed opinions to impress your friends with - all the more so if they haven't come out of a newspaper that everyone else will have read. Everyone adds their own spin to a stranger's enthusiastic comment on a new brand of MP3 player, and it becomes more and more likely to be passed on. Recommendations rotate and advance, trapping the unwary in persuasive pincer movements - three of my friends have said good things of X, therefore X is good. Scatter enough seeds into the right places, and absolutely anything can seem convincingly fashionable. (The Tory party put their whole advertising budget into paying competent actors to talk loudly in pubs, last March.)

My stop, and I leave the bus on a wave of static, stepping out into the hiss of the rain. It's heavier now, pouring down the slopes of the shopping centre and spattering onto the street through broken gutters. I remove my headphones, look up at the thick grey sky, and let the rain wash over me.

It must be a new week, for the adverts have changed. Giant posters stare down at me from their evenly-sliced hoardings, ready to revolve according to the time of day, or the ambient temperature. A dishevelled figure beside the bus-stop attempts to attract my attention, perhaps assuming that I'll be waiting there for a few minutes, perhaps having noticed my laughably outmoded walkman headphones, but I turn away.

I haven't been into the city for a while. I don't know where the nearest Starbucks is, but then I don't really need to. I decide to stay out in the rain, dodging the umbrellas along Western Road, pushing past the sandwich-board-T-shirt wearers, avoiding gazes as they come. A billboard is revolving in the rain, a new picture slatting itself into place. An eyelash-heavy model with a cup of hot coffee, pointing around the corner, directing me to my very nearest Starbucks. I follow.

And I see her through the window - seeing that I've stopped, she glances up at me through my rainy reflection, then back at a sheet of computer printout in her hand. (Three vague but passionate emails from a random Hotmail account, the final one suggesting that they meet in a Starbucks coffee shop appropriate to her postcode. I've seen it a hundred times before, and - yes - she's already bought the coffee.) But her. Her.

I push through the glass doors, ignore the helpful look from the cashier, and walk a little dazedly towards her table. She looks up again, smiles a nervous greeting.

"Hi. Are you William...?"

She doesn't recognise me, of course. Not that I've changed very much, not that I'm difficult to recognise (I'm even wearing the same coat), she just never really registered my existence at the time. I was a friend of a friend of a friend across the room, and nothing we said or did in the two years I knew her could have been worth her remembering.

"Hello?" she says.

I stare at her for a long time. You soon begin to wonder how people can be taken in by it, that thousands of people have had the same simply-generated email conversations with William, any rough edges on the AI being smoothed by breathless non-sequiturs and flat-out sidestepping. Even the instant-messenger ones have a passable hit rate. ("got to go - do you know the starbucks on $streetname?")

"Hello Jane."

I've idly considered it before, of course, but seeing Jane again overwhelms me with the thought that I could be William, if only for today. I've seen the source code - the names aren't random; they're tied to the personality types, all auto-generated in whatever personality test the girl gave her email address to. William is geared to appeal to the quiet, literate type. He will have suggested coffee, and a thoughtful distributor-X film at the nearest postcode-relevant cinema. She wouldn't be here if she hadn't agreed.

(I've got a bundle of thirty laminated cards in my pocket that explain the whole scam. Even if only one person in a hundred is fooled, and even if only one in a hundred actually goes to the coffee shop, and even if only one in ten buys anything while they're waiting, they've made a comfortable profit. This sort of AI is dirt cheap.)

It's a lie. Whatever it is, whatever it achieves, however little it impacts people's lives and however quickly they forget about it, it's a lie.

"No. No, I'm not William."

She draws back. "Oh. I'm sorry."

"I've got a message from him, though, sort of. Is it okay if I sit down?"

I break out the pack of cards, and deal one out.

* * *

I find the bathroom, and lurch unsteadily in, a hand catching the sink to steady me. A film (of our choice, not William's), a Thai restaurant, a good bottle of red, and a genuine recruitment to the CAMRAD cause, no subterfuge necessary. We'd spent the afternoon touring the other Starbucks in the city centre in the rain, handing out cards until they'd all gone, catching up on the past five years.

She did remember me after all, she'd just been thrown by the expectation of a new face. She wondered where I'd gone, over the years, we talked about why we hadn't tried to get back in touch. It all seems so stupid now.

I flick the shaving light on.

"Where are they?"

"Cabinet above the toothbrushes." she calls.

I flip open one of the mirrored doors, then the other. Move some boxes around. Pills, razors, tubs of stuff. Nothing.

"Can't see them."

"Oh, they're in a... silver tube thing."

And there they are, a silver tube of new X-Brand long-lasting. Not available to the public until next Monday. Threatening some revolutionary new method of advertising, according to this morning's CAMRAD newsletter.

She hasn't used my real name once, this afternoon. She's been calling me William. A "joke".

I must have been staring at my reflection for a while.

"Have you got them?"

"Yes." I say. "Yes, I have."