Sometimes Pepsi lurks where you least suspect it.
Certainly, one can expect a modicum of Pepsi to find its way into convenience store coolers and the bellies of vending robots. To be sure, it is no surprise to have it offered as an apologetic substitution after having ordered Coca-Cola in a restaurant. Pepsi’s blue banners can be seen ballyhooing their sponsorship of everything from cricket matches to university dining halls.
But in my life I have also seen Pepsi positioned as pay, as payola, and even as a possible font of propaganda and dubious dietary science in its latest attempt to reach the new generation — this time by hijacking a trusted corner of the blogging world.
Like many of you out there, I too once followed a drug-crazed Gypsy nymphomaniac to Montréal. It was my gap year, and my intention was to work modest jobs to pay for my modest lifestyle in order to avoid tapping into my university savings while tapping the Gypsy. Being reasonably bilingual at the time I found the lowest hanging fruit was to be found in the city’s bourgeoning telemarketing sector — this being in the twentieth century, of course, before all commercial telephony was routed through India.
The first job I was hired for paid a suspiciously high wage and was presided over by a cadre of ill-spoken urban gentlemen in shark-skin suits. They instructed me to con people into giving away their banking details by getting them excited about having won a contest they had never entered. They were entitled to a free television (which was plastic, made in China, and measured 2.5″ across) upon our receipt of a small entry fee debited quite automatically from their chequings account, a service we were happy to arrange on their behalf. In fact, our company would be happy to continue debiting that small amount on a monthly basis forever, or at least until the victim troubled themselves to go through the circular, nonsensical and frustrating process of requesting an end to their “subscription.”
One day, after convincing an illiterate Saskatchewan farmer to have a child read the numbers aloud off his chequebook for me, I decided quitting was the surest route to avoiding eternal damnation. I recorded the poor farmer’s details incorrectly on purpose, then walked out the door of Richway International and never returned.
I still needed money, though.
A telemarketing colleague gave me a tip about a place pushing coupons over the phone. He said his Richway pay was too high for his conscience to be heard over the noise of the money, but if I was feeling guilty I should be reassured to learn that the coupons in question were for charity. The charity was the Québec Association of Wheelchair Athletes, which seemed a noble enough cause to me. I applied for the job.
(If I had heard of the Internet back then and if Google wasn’t still unborn I would’ve done a quick search and discovered that there was no such charity.)
The call centre was located above a Pakistani restaurant that seemed to specialize in cockroach, a dim den dense with cigarette smoke and coughing old Frenchmen with tattered telephone books open in front of them. “Allo-bonjour,” they rasped, “I’m calling on behalf of zhe Québec Hassociation of Wheelchair Hatleet. We har selling zhe coupon book, okay?”
The supervisor was a very old man with jet black hair which tended to drip down his sweaty red neck to stain his collar. He had one cigarette in his mouth and one in each hand. Numbering points on his stubby yellow fingers, he instructed me in the basics: tell the mark you’re an unpaid volunteer, that you’re in a wheelchair, that you got their name off a petition, and that every penny from every coupon book sold goes directly to supporting youth sports programmes.
I smiled uncertainly. “Is that…you know, true?”
He laughed uproariously and punched me in the bicep. “I like you, ha ha. Hanyway, I can only pay you hate dollar whore…”
“Hate dollars per whore, okay?”
“Eight dollars an hour? But the ad said ten.”
“Hate dollar, but there’s some fringe benefit halso.” He picked up a cane, ashes spilling down the handle as he swung it over and jerked open a door with it. “Voilà,” he gurgled triumphantly, voice thick with phlegm, “all the Pepsi you can drink.”
I stood agape before a dingy room stuffed floor to ceiling with sealed shipping palettes of the Pepsi family of carbonated beverages, looming like monoliths from every side of the cramped space. I blinked. “Eight dollars an hour plus all the Pepsi I can drink? That’s the deal?”
He nodded. “Cash. No tax. Deal?”
“And it’s for charity?”
He shrugged. “You want zhe chob or don’t you?”
I took the job. I needed my half of the rent paid. So, I willingly spent my afternoons in the smoke-clogged room, elbow to elbow with drunks and derelicts and hobos as they worked the marks and ashed into the empty pop cans cluttering every surface. “Pass me a 7-Up, fuck,” they would say in a friendly way, then hawk brown mucus. “I just called fucking Mordecai Richler!”
Leonard Cohen keeps a flat in the city but nobody answers the phone there. One time Robertson Davies’ butler hung up on me. It was awesome. Brian and Mila Mulroney were unlisted. I left an answering machine message for Jean Chretien. “Do you like Pepsi, Monsieur Chretien? Because I can hook you up.”
The room full of Pepsi was replenished on a regular basis. I cannot imagine quite how, or why.
There never were any coupon books, of course.
Fifteen years later I find myself making a reasonable living as a commercial artist in Toronto, contracted to a small events management and communications company that specializes in inferior service for a high mark-up. One of our clients is a company connected to a company that is connected to PepsiCo, and one day the client contact asks me if we can speak privately.
“I’m wondering if you can help me out with a little side project,” she whispers, looking around furtively after closing the door. Before I can answer she slips a manila envelope out of her blazer and spreads out the contents on my desk. The pictures are nudes. Of her. “I’m making a website,” she tells me.
I raise an eyebrow. “What kind?”
“It’s for charity,” she says, “benefitting victims of breast cancer.”
“That’s noble. You’re a survivor?”
“No, this was just cheaper than hiring a model. And I figured that a breast cancer site needs breasts, right?”
“But it’s a big secret. If my bosses find out I’m spending time on this I’ll be in real trouble. And I don’t exactly want to advertise the fact that these are my breasts. I mean, what would people think?”
“Maybe they’d think you had cancer.”
“The thing is, I don’t have a lot of money for this right now. But it’s got to launch on time. So I guess I’m asking if we can work out a deal, you and me.”
I look down at the photographs dubiously. “Um, what kind of deal?”
“I can pay you in Pepsi.”
I sigh. Under-the-counter Pepsi has found its way to me once again. The task isn’t demanding and I do enjoy working with breasts so I go ahead and accept her deal despite my complete lack of interest in soda pop. My efforts are rewarded as promised when a Pepsi Bottling Company truck pulls up and delivers unto me an unholy quantity of Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Pepsi Max. Seven days later, figuring I must have made a dent in the supply, the truck returns and uploads half a dozen more stacks of 24-can flats. “See you next week!” calls the delivery man cheerfully.
So now I am drowning in a mountain of contraband soda. Fucking cancer.
This week I discover that ScienceBlogs, a well-respected and widely-read blogging collective supported by Seed Magazine, has decided the trust it has garnered over the past few years of editorially unfettered hard-science reporting and discussion is entirely disposable by offering a platform to PepsiCo to pontificate on nutrition from the point of view of a multinational corporation selling ass-fat in a can.
Twice burned, thrice shy: I now associate the sight of Pepsi with the smell of a rat.
I fear for ScienceBlogs, one of my favourite waystations of critical thinking and science information on the Internet. Many of its A-list bloggers spend an inordinate amount of time fighting off baseless accusations of being “corporate shills” – defenses which may now sound a little bit more hollow now that they are peers with an obvious corporate mouthpiece. (In defense of the decision, the Guardian has printed a letter from Seed editor Adam Bly here.)
I’m now beginning to suspect that my portrayal of PepsiCo in my science-fiction novella Welcome to Mars! may have been more prescient than I’d been aware at the time.
Ah, Pepsi: my personal omen of corruption.