From the author: Published in 2012, this is a cyberpunk satire about guerilla documentary-making, advertising, and data security. I have republished it here because I saw this article today, which makes it look as though the central conceit of the story might soon be a reality: https://futurism.com/startrocket-giant-ads-night-sky-cubesats Sigh.
INTO THE ADLIGHT
by Jason Franks
The walls came on when it was time for him to awaken, brightening slowly from purest black to coldest white. Rickman McGregor drew back the white duvet and swung his feet down onto the white carpet.
McGregor slipped on a pair of white slippers and went into the white-enameled bathroom. After his shower he whitened the dark roots of his hair, combed it straight back. McGregor made his ablutions efficiently, but without hurry. It was going to be a big day.
McGregor was fastening the white tie around the collar of his white shirt when the door chime rang. He shrugged on his white jacket and told the house to let the documentary crew in.
The director, Abram Jonas, was a scruffy, owl-faced man with a Toronto accent. He carried a paunch at the front, but he had the square shoulders of a weight lifter, and his arms were striated with muscle. Jonas was dressed in the dyed-black garments for which he had become famous: every brand logo had been cut off, patched over, or filed smooth. His DOP, Col, and his audio engineer, Lana, were likewise clad in black.
The director did not offer his hand, and neither did McGregor. “Come inside,” he said. “Would you like some breakfast?”
They followed him into the kitchen area and he gestured for them to be seated at the bar counter.
“Eggs? Potatoes? Toast?”
“Sounds good,” said Col.
“Are you serious?” asked Lana, looking up from the LCD on the back of her microphone array gauntlet.
“Quite.” McGregor turned his back as he went to the stove.
“Just make it fast,” said Jonas. “I want to get some good footage of the agency.”
“Today is going to be quite intense,” agreed McGregor. “Might I suggest you begin shooting now?”
“Rickman McGregor makes breakfast for the fat man?”
“If you’re not hungry, you don’t have to eat.”
Jonas grunted and turned to his crew. “Col, over there. I want the two-shot: McGregor at the stove and me on this seat. Lana: ambient up as well as directional. The gas burners on the stove, the sizzling pan; I want it all in the mix when we add the music.”
Col found his place and set the camera. Lana tweaked the settings on the back of her hand and splayed her finger-mikes.
“Let’s jump right in. I’ll do the intros in voiceover.”
“Go ahead,” said McGregor, cracking the eggs into the pan.
“Today is the Rathmullen launch,” said Jonas, leaning on the counter. “The most expensive campaign in the history of advertising, orchestrated by none other than the bogeyman of advertising, Rickman McGregor.”
“Indeed,” McGregor replied over his shoulder.
“You've been working on this launch for some time, now.”
“About fourteen months,” replied McGregor. “But I’ve been planning it for much longer than that.”
McGregor laughed. “Budget, yes, but mainly legal precedent. This is a big one.”
“I’ve never even heard of Rathmullen before.”
“Hence the campaign.” McGregor flipped the eggs.
“What are they selling, exactly?”
“Well, it isn’t soap powder,” said McGregor, putting one of the four perfectly over-medium eggs onto each of the plates he had made up. “Now cut. Breakfast is served.”
McGregor didn't put on his glasses until they were almost out the door. Jonas snapped his fingers and Col brought the camera up just in time to catch the expression on the ad-man’s face as he arose into the Net for the first time in the day. Or rather, the lack of expression: the only movement on McGregor’s face was the saccadic flicker of his eyes reading off the datastream that the glasses projected onto his retinae.
McGregor was still reading as he led them out of the front door. His lenses polarized to opacity as they stepped out into the adlight.
The sun was completely hidden by the smog haze, but it was nonetheless bright outside; the dawn lit from millions of smaller and lower places. Screens and holoprojections and neon images scintillated across every exposed surface. Purring, bleating, laughing, pulsing audio dopplered as they walked down the street. Every space bore a message, and the message was BUY. Holidays, cars, cosmetics, lingerie, entertainment, companionship. Purchase, rent, lease, loan; barter, trade, borrow, own. Buy.
The filters in Jonas’ own glasses came on, cutting a path of clear vision for him, fading and fuzzing and interpolating out the worst of the ad noise. He wondered how much McGregor filtered.
Col was filming their walk on the steadicam and Jonas let him have his head--the DOP had a better eye than he did. He blinked to bring up his own HUD and check his own datastream scrolled across his vision. Jonas squinted and the firmware refocused the scrolling text against the information-saturated background.
Eighteen new emails, twelve RSS packages, four calendar alerts, eighteen messageboard posts. Could be worse: Jonas’ feed was expensive enough to keep the embedded context ads out. Jonas scanned the subject lines, read a couple of abstracts, acknowledged the alarms. Nothing urgent. He dismissed the HUD and rushed to catch up with McGregor.
Jonas didn’t know why he had been offered this story. He didn’t do work-for-hire and McGregor’s agency knew it--so they hadn’t offered him money, just the opportunity to shoot. He was suspicious, of course, but they hadn’t asked for editing rights, and McGregor was just too ripe a target to refuse. The most powerful ad-man in the country, served up to Jonas the Butcher on the go-live of his biggest ever campaign, by his own agency.
McGregor had to know the carving knife was out. Jonas grinned at his back and imagined sticking a fork into it.
The ad-man stepped down onto the escalator that descended into the subway station. The platform was mostly deserted, but it was nonetheless full of light and sound: the companies that sponsored the subway company projected their ads from the lamps.
The train arrived just inside the ninety-second window that the rail provider's publicity loudly and repeatedly guaranteed. Commuters stared at the Jonas’ black-clad crew as they followed their whited-out subject into the carriage, but they remained passively in their seats. Brand names glowed on every item of their clothing. Some of them had logos or slogans tattooed onto their skins.
McGregor found a seat in the corner of an empty six-seat booth, a window on his right, his back towards the front of the train. He smiled graciously and gestured for the crew to continue rolling.
“Col, I want a three quarter angle on McGregor, plus the two-shot. Lana, the sound is all me and McGregor; I don't want any train noise or background chatter.”
McGregor sat patiently, waiting for them to set up. Col was finding it difficult to light him properly with ads strobing across him from random directions. The train had stopped again by the time Jonas raised his hand to signal action.
“Hey, are you Abe Jonas?”
Jonas turned to see who had interrupted him: a big guy wearing in a too-small polo shirt, plastered with advertisements for tires, sportswear and candy. A department store sigil was imprinted on each of his corneas. Jonas shook on his public face and rose to pump the big guy’s hand. “Yeah, I am. What’s your name?”
“Rog Dunstan,” said the man. “I’m a big fan. I loved that thing you did about the war in Turkmenistan. ‘Blood For the Basher.’”
“The Bashar,” Jonas replied. “Thanks, man, it means a lot to me that you’d say that.”
“What are you, like, doing?”
Jonas inhaled and indicated McGregor and his crew. “Working, actually.”
“Oh, sweet! A new film!” Dunstan swung his head around, taking in the scene. “What’s this one about?”
“Oh.” Dunstan deflated visibly. “Well, I’ll let you get on with it.”
Dunstan started to turn around--then he stopped and squinted at McGregor. “Who are you, anyway?”
McGregor smiled and spread his hands. “I’m the hero,” he said. “That’s why I’m dressed in white.”
McGregor sat easily in his chair while they set up to shoot in his office. Every item of furniture was the same hard, mercury white. The only color came from the business end of the bank of monitors that stood on his desk.
When Jonas was finally satisfied with the camera setup, he seated himself opposite McGregor, propped up a knee, and smiled that knowing-buffoon smile his fans loved so much.
“Please tell us what it is that you do, Mr. McGregor.”
“I'm the principal media designer for an advertising agency.”
“You’re known as advertising's greatest visionary. The world’s greatest marketing mind.”
McGregor shrugged. “My work has generally yielded good results.” Jonas could tell that he knew what was coming. McGregor sat back and waited for it.
“Your detractors, on the other hand, say that your methods are cynical and ruthless.”
“They’re effective, that’s all,” said McGregor.
“Why is your approach so effective?”
“Advertising is an art as well as a science,” McGregor replied. He picked up a fountain pen from the desk and used it to punctuate his words. “It’s about finding attractive and effective ways to communicate ideas. I use every piece of knowledge or technology that is legally available in order to effect this. That’s my job.”
“To sell things.”
“To alter the target audience’s cognitive landscape. To put ideas into their heads, or to change ideas that are already present. To make them want and need what my clients have to offer, by any means available.” He smiled, tapped the pen against his chin. Jonas noticed that there was no paper anywhere in the office. “It’s not up to me to determine which of those means are ethical-- I’m neither a lawyer nor a politician. It’s not up to me to judge whether the ideas I'm selling are worthy or true or rational.”
“One of the your most notorious innovations is the sale of product placement within ads for other products.”
“It was inevitable. Non-competing companies have been forming alliances since the noughties, producing advertisements that would demonstrate both of their products. I built on that.”
“Which, of course, has lead to today’s deeply-nested advertising.”
“Reselling commercial space gives a lot of new options to advertisers. We have co–ops, we have advertisers paying to have their products displayed in more prestigious advertisers’ commercials... and, aside from the reduced monetary outlay, many vendors are finding that it’s a great way to infiltrate niche markets. Best of all--we can prove that it works.” McGregor twirled the prop pen in his fingers. It was hypnotic. “We have very sophisticated metrics for advertising performance. We can now offer our clients realtime modeling of demographics, inventory levels, uptake and sell-through. It’s really quite something.”
“You, personally, have caused an exponential increase in the density of commercials in both public and private places.”
“And a geometric rise in revenue for my client advertisers.”
“Not to mention your own advertising house.”
McGregor smiled. “You don’t expect me to work for free, do you?” he said. “I have bills to pay, just like everybody else.”
“You've been called the most evil man on the planet.”
McGregor smiled. “Yes, frequently,” he said. “But usually behind my back.”
“How do you feel about that?”
McGregor tapped the butt of the pen on the desk twice and put it down. “It's nice to be appreciated,” he said.
Jonas and his crew struggled to keep up with McGregor for the rest of the morning as he strode around the agency's bare-walled buildings, overseeing the legal teams, the art department; production and communications and engineering and finance; room to room; meeting to meeting. McGregor didn't waste a word or a footstep. He never paused for thought, he never stumbled in his speech. It seemed as if the whole day had been choreographed; as if it was all a performance for the documentary crew. It was uncanny.
It wasn't until they went down into the corporate cafeteria for lunch that McGregor was again idle enough to take questions.
The cafeteria was, in fact, quite a fancy restaurant. There were no sponsors on the menus or the furniture. Subdued art prints that did not seem to be promoting anything hung on the walls. Jonas ordered drinks for his crew and a plate of stew for mise en scène. He had no intention of eating it--it looked bad show a fat guy chowing down camera. McGregor ordered a hamburger.
Under Jonas’ direction, Col wedged himself up on the seat across the table from McGregor, crouching with his back against the wall of the booth for a downshot. He had his number two and three cameras clipped to the edge of the table, providing stable three-quarter angles of Jonas and McGregor. Lana had the mike array tight, although the restaurant was quiet.
“The Rathmullen campaign goes live in forty minutes,” said McGregor. “We have twenty to talk and eat.”
“It seems to me that advertising has become markedly more aggressive in the last couple of decades.”
“Today’s consumers have been raised in advertising-rich environments and they are very difficult to broach. We have to keep escalating the intensity or give up the battle.”
“You bludgeon consumers into submission.”
The food arrived. It was served on plain white plates; no logos or brands visible. The food was also unbranded. It looked delicious. Jonas arranged the table setting and had Col capture some of the detail. McGregor picked up his hamburger with both hands and took a bite. “We give back as much as we take. Ad-subsidized products feed and clothe the population better than any government ever has.” McGregor took another bite of his hamburger.
“By polluting every aspect of culture with your cut-rate spruiking.”
“Some advertisements are very expensive--not to mention classy.”
“Advertisements can be legitimate works of art... just like documentaries.” McGregor swallowed his mouthful, dabbed his lips with a cloth napkin. “Painstakingly crafted to the highest production values. Subtle. Capable of changing hearts and minds.
“We don’t just sell hamburgers, Mr. Jonas; we sell cars, we sell homes, we sell services and occupations and social status and political ideals. We sell governments. We sell corporations.
“Sometimes, the consumer doesn’t even know they’re being sold to.” He popped the last of the hamburger into his mouth. “Those are the most difficult ones. How do you trick the audience into sitting through your pitch?”
“Embed the pitch in content the listener actually wants.”
“You mix advertising in with the entertainment business until it’s hard to tell fiction from a celebrity endorsement.”
“Indeed.” McGregor wiped his hands on the napkin. “Come, it’s time for the launch.”
Col kept the camera rolling as McGregor led them through the corridors. The ad-man badged them into a small lobby, then into a private elevator. They ascended in silence.
The elevator rose so smoothly that Jonas could not determine how long they stood there: there were no lights to indicate what floor they were passing. There were no controls, no mirrors. They just stood there inside the four white walls, bathed in diffuse light. White noise hissed softly from hidden speakers. Jonas was not aware that the elevator had stopped until the doors opened.
McGregor stepped out and they followed.
They were on the roof of the building. “The launch is up here?” asked Jonas. “Where’s everybody else?”
“Out there,” said McGregor, gesturing at the sprawl of the flickering city. The cloudy sky hung low, incandescent with projected images. “Trust me, nobody’s going to miss this one.”
Jonas bustled into action. “Col, tight on the two of us. Lana, just the voices.” Col set the camera and Lana fixed the wind muffs to her mike array. It was 1pm.
“You know,” said McGregor, “If you turned off the advertising right now, the city would be darker than it is at night.”
Jonas put down his wine glass. “They used to call that ‘light pollution.’”
McGregor took a sip from his glass. “The city can’t afford to illuminate itself.”
“We wouldn’t have to, if we didn’t burn so much fuel. Daytime used to be bright.”
McGregor laughed. “Yes, and dinosaurs used to walk the earth, Mr. Jonas.” The ad-man turned to the DOP. “Col, you need to go wide to capture this.”
Col adjusted his camera and moved back.
Jonas glared at McGregor, then at Col. “McGregor, this is my crew and my documentary shoot.”
“And it’s my campaign,” said McGregor. “You wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?” He looked at his watch. “Live in thirty seconds.” McGregor removed his glasses and turned to stare out at the view with his naked eyes.
“What am I looking for?” asked Col.
“The big picture.”
“Hush now, Abram.”
First, the traffic in the streets stopped. The airspace cleared. The roaring city subsided to a low, sustained growl.
Then the clouds went out.
They stood there in the darkness for a good ten seconds. The growl took on an anxious quality.
Then, slowly, the sky began to purple.
“My luminosity engineers spent five months working out how to do this.”
Something was happening. The flickering of the trillion ads pulsed, a rhythm coming slowly upon the random lights. They popped white, like a battery of uncounted flashbulbs. Then they fell purple, to match the sky.
“What have you done, McGregor?”
“Please calm down, Mr. Jonas. It’s just an advertisement; it’s not the main show.”
Lights sparkled in the purple, singly, then in greater and greater clusters. A gigantic white image formed over the city grid, and fainter mirror-image reflection plastered itself across the sky.
It was a logo.
“There we are.”
“You’ve... you’ve built an ad out of...”
“I made an advertisement out of all the other advertisements.”
The logo dissolved back into the random ad-flicker. The clouds went back to their usual grey.
“But I still don’t know what ‘Rathmullen’ is.”
“Rathmullen is an advertising agency,” said McGregor. “My new agency, to be precise. And we feel that we need to strengthen our brand.”
Jonas stared at him. “So, the whole point of me being here was to... to...”
“Right, Mr. Jonas. Your documentary will be the main event.”
The tendons stood out against Jonas’ jowly neck. “Col. Lana. Cut.”
They stared at him. McGregor stood impassive, watching the giant R blazoned on the city and reflected in the sky. He looked like a superhero, dressed al in white. Advertising Man. Bringer of light to the darkness; savior of the civilized world.
“Jesus, Abe,” said Lana. Col just shook his head.
“This documentary is part of your advertisement.” Jonas sprayed it at the man in white.
McGregor didn’t flinch. “Indeed. The biggest ad campaign in history, documented by the most stubbornly-independent film-maker on the planet. The celebrity endorsement that money can’t buy.”
Jonas put his fists behind him and leaned over McGregor. “I’m never going to make this film.”
“Somebody will, you may be assured,” said McGregor. “My communications team has been doubling your data off the satellite uplink all day long.”
“Your off-the-shelf encryption is little better than worthless, I’m afraid.”
“If you won’t finish the movie, my own team will.”
“Nobody wants to watch corporate propaganda.”
“That’s why we had you shoot it. If you won’t endorse it, we’ll just leak our version out to the torrents. People will want to see the film that Abram Jonas tried to suppress.”
“You have two options, Mr. Jonas. You can walk away and let my team finish it, or you can do it your own way. Pad it with whatever slander you want, just as long as the footage you filmed today is included. Otherwise, I’ll just release it on my own.”
Jonas stared at him. “You son of a...”
“I’m a ‘visionary’, Mr. Jonas,” said McGregor. “But if you prefer, evil genius will do just as well.”
“This isn’t genius, McGregor, this is just grand bastardy.”
“Grand? This isn’t grand, Mr. Jonas,” said McGregor. “Our next company advertisement will be visible from orbit...and after that?”
McGregor raised one hand nonchalantly to the low, adlit sky. “Well, I’ve already paid the deposit for a lease on the sunward aspect of the moon.”
This story originally appeared in After the World #5.