They used to say the best marketing men could sell ice cream to Eskimos. Max Pfalznagel could have passed the test easily; any self-respecting account executive, he used to say, would just kidnap a few Eskimos, strand them in the Mojave, and then drive up in an ice cream van.
Professional awards? They were decided by fellow members of the marketing industry in an orgy of mutual backslapping. Max did not feel it was particularly distinguished to have won all of those several times, either.
Thus it was that, unsatisfied with available accolades and unfulfilled by his fabulous fortune, Max Pfalznagel still yearned for some utterly decisive demonstration of his genius.
“The real test needs to be something everyone concedes is impossible,” Max told his friend Bernardo Sanchez over a large bourbon on the rocks.
The two of them met most evenings in an up-market Madison Avenue watering-hole to which only a select clientele belonged. Two former professional wrestlers guarded the door and ensured appropriate privacy. Inside the club, in dark rooms redolent of expensive cigars, the big wheeler-dealers could kick off their shoes, let their hair down, or behave in any other insalubrious manner, so long as they coughed up the membership fee.
It was the close of a trying day, during which Max had achieved nothing better than a handsome honorarium from a wildlife charity for successfully persuading the Japanese to stop whaling. The previous day he’d astonished the Japanese by persuading the Scots to see the superior merit of imported whisky. The week before, his efforts had resulted in the sale of fifty container loads of Irish potatoes to a supermarket chain in Idaho and the week before that, he’d got a hundred container loads of American vodka into Russia.
“I mean, frankly, just doing difficult things has gotten rather boring. What can we hit upon that everyone agrees can’t be done? You know, like maybe proving the existence of fairies, or two plus two equals five, or something.”
Bernardo had known Max for a long time. He liked him, and not just because Max regularly put small accounts Bernardo’s way when he couldn’t be bothered with them himself. Bernardo was not too proud to take crumbs from the rich man’s table, and Max Pfalznagel was very rich.
It was a Madison Avenue axiom that no turkey was a turkey until Pfalznagel ate it for Thanksgiving. Max could sell anything. His record was looked on with envious admiration and his legend continually embellished with fresh triumphs. Where Max got his inspiration, Bernardo couldn’t say, but, if he was genuinely asking for an opinion this time, Bernardo was willing to give the question serious thought.
“Math is too difficult for your average Joe; he wouldn’t know the right answer anyway, so it would be no sort of trick to persuade him two plus two is five,” Bernardo opined. “Now fairies though, that’s a different ball game. Try persuading people there really are fairies at the bottom of your garden. You’d begin with the disadvantage everyone would think you a lunatic; that’s quite an obstacle to overcome.”
“But at the same time everyone secretly wants to believe it,” responded Max doubtfully. “That’s how come those British kids pulled off the stunt with the fake photographs a hundred years ago. They even convinced Conan Doyle—you know, the guy who wrote Sherlock Holmes. Not only is that far too easy, it’s already been done.”
“Not so fast,” objected Bernardo. “I know all about the Doyle case, and so does most of the rest of the world. That’s what makes fairies a genuine test nowadays.”
He put his drink down on the table and explained. “Look, in the early twentieth century a photograph was a marvelous thing, right? Some dude coins the phrase ‘The camera never lies,’ you photograph a fairy, and hey presto, fairies exist! So far, so good?”
“But then we get embarrassed by our own naïveté when it turns out to be a scam. Once bitten, twice shy, right? We start becoming cynical about so-called proofs. The more we get conned, the more we start looking for the con the next time some joker tries to sell us a tall tale. Are you still with me?”
Max nodded again.
“Well QED, Max. Today, we’re all cynics. You say that you’re gonna prove there are fairies and we say ‘Yeah, right! We been caught that way already, buddy.’ You’ll meet the same knowing smirks as if you tried to prove the Martians had landed.”
“Folk did believe the Martians had landed in the nineteen thirties,” said Max, looking even more dubious.
“You’re missing my point,” Bernardo said, taking another slug of his bourbon and trying again. “Look at it this way. The Martian scare was accidental, right? The fairies photograph was a deliberate fraud, but the principle’s the same. What did they have in common?” He did not wait for a reply. “Both of them were found out, that’s what!”
“Max!” Bernardo could not believe how slow his friend was being. As a general rule Pfalznagel had a mind like a steel trap. “They might have fooled all of the people, some of the time, but they left those people a great deal less credulous than before.”
“Ah, I see!”
“At last! Now my idea, as old Honest Abe would never have put it, is not to fool all of the people some of the time; not even to fool some of the people all of the time. The ultimate test of a marketing man is to fool all of the people all of the time; just like that guy Galileo. Nowadays if you don’t believe him you’re a fruitcake, right?”
“Well, let’s leave aside that we might not be around in a few hundred years to check that we’ve done as well as Galileo,” Max countered. “The reason everyone still believes Galileo is he wasn’t fooling—he told the truth. You aren’t going to disprove the truth, no matter how long they give you.”
“And now you see my point,” smiled Bernardo. “The real test of a marketing man is to sell something so well nobody will ever be able to distinguish what he says from the truth. Do that for fairies and you’re sure to go down in history, Max.”
Max downed the last of his bourbon and nodded in agreement.
Two days later Max and Bernardo met once again after work. Max had just sold the entire year’s output of a Californian vineyard to the French. He was looking particularly gloomy, even for him.
“You know what you said about fairies at the bottom of the garden, Bernie?” he inquired lugubriously. “Well, it ain’t gonna do as the ultimate test of a marketing man.”
“Why’s that then?” asked Bernardo, prepared for disappointment.
“Because it’s just like Galileo,” Max replied. “There can’t be any credit in persuading all of the people that something is true if it actually is true. For it to be a proper test, you’d have to persuade all of the people that something was true when it was actually false.”
Bernardo was relieved. “Yeah, right!” he scoffed. “And the moon really is made of blue cheese!”
“That’s green cheese, Bernie,” Max corrected him. “The moon is made of green cheese, not blue.”
“Okay, I’ll buy it,” laughed Bernardo. “You aren’t gonna tackle my challenge because it’s too easy, on account of it actually being true that there are fairies at the bottom of your garden?”
“That’s exactly right,” Max replied morosely.
“Now Max, you are talking to old Bernardo here, not some hillbilly that just blowed in from the blue-grass country—or should that be green-grass country, huh?”
“Admit it!” said Bernardo. “What you mean is, you can’t come up with a way of doing it, and so you want to pretend it’s no kind of test. I can’t believe it, but it seems that even the great Pfalznagel has his limits.”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” said Max. He shook his head again, leaned back in his chair and blew smoke rings at the ceiling. The silence stretched out between them as Bernardo waited patiently for the explanation Max seemed to have an abnormal difficulty in framing.
“Look, I’ll be honest with you; my first thought was a pretty straightforward sort of con. I thought I’d set up some kind of special-effects gizmo.”
“Yeah, well, I know a guy who specializes in doing that sort of thing for the movies. This guy promised to get me a holographic projector. The basic idea was I’d camouflage it in a tree, so it wouldn’t be found if anyone wanted to search the bottom of the garden in the dark right after I demonstrated the existence of fairies. By the morning I’d have taken it away again in case anyone came back for a better look. The plan was so simple, it couldn’t go wrong, know what I mean?
“But then I said to myself, ‘What am I, some two-bit conjurer? What kind of a marketing man sets up a common-or-garden deception and expects it to last more than a week?’”
“The usual kind, I’d say,” Bernardo grunted.
“Sure, sure!” Max retorted impatiently. “But we ain’t setting up a test to find the usual kind; we’re trying to show who’s the best, right?”
Bernardo was now puzzled. Max had just explained deception would be easy and straightforward; so easy in fact it had taken him a matter of hours to figure out how to solve a problem Bernardo had intended to be insoluble. Why then had he not gone ahead with it?
“I don’t get it. If it’s so easy, what’s the problem?”
“I just told you why, Bernie. If you’d let me finish, you’d see what I mean.”
Bernardo smiled, lit himself another cigar, and sat back in his chair to listen to Max’s explanation.
“Well, when I gave up on the whiz-kid stuff I just took myself down to the bottom of the garden to think. I sat on my old bench seat there. I looked all about at the trees and the flowers and the grass. I thought how quiet and peaceful it all was and I asked myself how I would go about persuading folk there were fairies, assuming I was Galileo.”
“Speaking the truth.”
“Exactly. What I wanted was not some fraud that would be found out in the end just as all frauds inevitably are. What I wanted was something indistinguishable from the truth.”
“I get you.”
“And do you know what Bernie? As I was sitting there, thinking, this little guy comes up to me and says he knows the answer to my problem.”
“Oh, he did?” smiled Bernie. “Well, lots of good things come in small packages; I’m only five-foot-six myself.”
“You don’t understand!” Max protested. “When I say ‘little guy’ I mean really little; like this guy was about six inches tall.”
“Oh yeah!” Bernie went on grinning. “And he wore tights and knee boots. Maybe he had diaphanous butterfly wings and a little sword made out of a darning needle!”
“Have you seen him too?” Max demanded.
“Give it up, Max!” laughed Bernardo. “A joke is a joke, but how long have we known each other, huh? I can tell when you’re pulling my leg.”
“I’m perfectly serious,” Max declared. “As true as I’m sitting here, there are fairies at the bottom of my garden. Well, no, to be strictly accurate, there is one fairy, but he did say he had lots of friends in the neighborhood.”
“He sort of shimmered in the dark, Bernie. When he got all excited explaining his idea he just jumped up in the air and hovered six inches in front of my nose. I’m telling you, he lit up that arbor like Christmas lights. And I’m sitting there on the old bench, just listening, and all the while blinking like a possum in a searchlight.”
“Max!” Bernardo expostulated. “Enough already!”
“I’ll prove it,” Max asserted vigorously. “Come home with me this evening and I’ll show you.”
“And you’ll buy me dinner when it all turns out to be a scam,” Bernardo insisted.
“I’ll buy you dinner in any case,” said Max brightly. “You’re gonna need a good meal to help you recover from the shock.”
“Now I know you’re crazy!” said Bernardo.
After two hours sitting in the dark at the bottom of Max’s garden, Bernardo was cold and very hungry. At first it had been pleasant enough. The fresh sea air in Fairfield was scented with the captivating odor of musk roses and honeysuckle in flower, all around the arbor in which they waited. The night was clear and the full moon glowed in a cloudless sky, filling the garden with silver light and throwing intriguing shadows across the herbaceous border.
Unfortunately, Bernardo was a marketing man who spent his days writing romantic language and did not need to spend his evenings researching more material. He was Max’s friend and his business needed Max’s goodwill, but he was tired of being hushed every time he started to speak; he was beginning to take cramps in places he couldn’t stretch and itches in places he couldn’t scratch.
As a good friend should, he’d cut Max an awful lot of slack, but he failed to see either the funny side or the commercial advantage of persevering beyond the point of acute discomfort. For the fifth time he decided to put an end to the experiment and this time he stood up and started to walk away just to emphasize he really meant it.
“That’s it, Max,” he affirmed with finality. “Your joke has gone on far too long. I want the dinner you owe me.”
“Just a little longer,” Max pleaded. “He’ll come, I promise you. He’s just been delayed, is all. Something’s gone wrong.”
“And if I sit any longer on this bench seat something will go permanently wrong with my ass. Max, I’m starving, let’s go!”
With many protestations and obvious reluctance Max allowed himself to be persuaded to leave the garden.
Two hours later Max was back on his garden seat. He’d treated Bernardo to a very expensive meal, at the end of which his friend had declared there to be no hard feelings, though possibly some splinters, and gone off chuckling into the darkness.
A shining miniature figure now appeared and stood on the other end of the bench.
“You did well, Max,” said the king of the fairies. “It’s just as I told you. No one will ever believe a marketing man is telling the truth; not in a thousand years.”
“The general public might disagree,” Max demurred.
“Not at all,” the fairy laughed. “Ask anyone. They’ll all tell you they pay no attention to advertisements. Then they go and buy the stuff they weren’t persuaded to buy.”
“My reputation will take a hit,” Max grumbled.
“Nonsense. All publicity is good publicity; isn’t that what you marketing men always say? Anyway, the fact is, that team of psychic investigators from Columbia were getting too close for my comfort. That’s all done with now. We can rely on old Bernie to tell everyone about his uncomfortable evening. With this story all over Madison Avenue, the new industry proverb will soon be ‘Even Pfalznagel can’t sell fairies’.”
“It’s good tag line. It does kinda trip off the tongue, doesn’t it?” Max smiled.
“Exactly. The psychics will be laughed out of town. Yes, Max, you’ve done very well indeed.”
“Thank you,” said Max. “I aim to please.”
“Now then,” the fairy king continued, “I’ve arranged another contract for you by way of a reward. How do you fancy selling imported coffee in Brazil?”
Born in Yorkshire, Oxford graduate Philip Brian Hall is a former diplomat and teacher. He has stood for parliament, sung solos in amateur operettas, rowed at Henley Royal Regatta, completed a 40 mile cross-country walk in under 12 hours and ridden in over one hundred horse-races over fences. He lives on a very small farm in Scotland with his wife, a dog, a cat and some horses.
Philip has had short stories published by (among others) AE The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Flame Tree Publishing and Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores. His novel, The Prophets of Baal is available as an e-book and in paperback. He blogs at The View from Siabh Mannan.