The corporate jokes never grow old. Rich Mackin knows this. While rants against Starbucks and their ilk have become borderline trite in their ubiquity, the very affirmation elicited from these assaults at corporate America proves the well of discontent has not yet run dry.
Ralph Nader also knows this.
When Nader -- corporate watchdog and Green Party presidential candidate -- crossed paths with Mackin in October 2000, it marked a milestone in the young activist's trajectory from punk-rock frontman to self-titled Consumer Defense Corporate Poet.
"When I was asked to speak before Nader, I was actually outside performing a mock-protest of his speech," Mackin says by phone from his Boston home. "It was a satirical performance-art group, dubbing ourselves 'Billionaires for Bush or Gore.' We dressed up as rich people, talking about why we were supporting two men who are essentially the same person -- a wealthy white man in support of the status quo.
"But inside, they had a 20-minute block to kill because Nader's plane was late," Mackin continues. "I did some of my political stuff, but there were enough political speakers there to dwell on serious things. I was more of an ice-breaker, the comic relief. It went over well."
It is that Dick Gregory-like combination of activism and comedy that fuels Mackin's work, which is part of the Storytime for Deviants Tour that hits Zeitgeist on Wednesday. Mackin joins Guerilla Poet Janaka Stuckey and author Sean Carswell on the tour; Carswell is co-founder of Gorsky Press, which published Mackin's cult classic Dear Mr. Mackin ... . This collection of letters sent to various corporations features serious queries and oddball curiosities -- inspired when, as a 20-year-old painting major at the Massachusetts College of Art, he wrote a letter seeking the logic behind the color scheme of M&M candies.
"The first letter (to a corporation) was just a goofy thing to amuse myself, then I shared it with friends," Mackin explains. "It just started out as basic stand-up comedy, like 'Have you ever wondered why ... ?' I thought, instead of me and my friends talking to each other about it, let's ask the company. It's something so basic -- writing -- but something people often don't do. What exactly are the two scoops? The companies want to tell you; some companies will go on and on about some information."
Though Mackin did not think enough of the original letter to save it, the response from M&M's consumer-affairs office dated June 21, 1994, served as the catalyst for a letter-writing campaign. The letters have probed everything from why Lucky Charms are lucky to alleged human-rights violations committed by Shell Oil Company.
"The first letters were more of a concept thing, with the concept having my focus rather than the writing," Mackin explains. "But as it became more and more of an act, I put more time into my writing and using my voice in the letters. So it moved from just the documenting of a concept to having an actual literary aspect to it."
A reading of Dear Mr. Mackin ... finds both humor and quality writing readily available.
In one of several correspondences with the soap company Lever 2000, Mackin writes, "Your biggest claim is that Lever 2000 cleans all the body's 2000 parts, which is an exaggeration of the number of soap cleanable body parts a human being has." Part of the company's response: "Obviously, it was our intention that using the number '2000' in connection with body parts would help to reinforce our product name and that fact that Lever 2000 is milder to the skin than any other bacterial or deodorant soap on the market... ." Huh?
"Lever 2000 is a metaphor for corporate America," Mackin explains. "They don't respond to criticism, don't back up what they say, and don't even know what they say."
The third letter in an exchange with Shell finds Mackin in an eloquent rant mode, asking W.K. Jacobs, manager of Shell's external affairs, "Do you sleep well knowing that you are the message boy for evildoers? Can you look yourself in the mirror and say, 'I like being a spreader of propaganda! I enjoy lying to the public! I am a useful and important cog in the big faceless machine!"
However, Mackin says his anti-corporate stance is not all rage intended to cause action.
"I'm writing for people that are just regular Americans, not people already angered that Nike runs sweat-shops and Shell Oil has a poor human-rights record," he says. "I want to put a smile on their face, but also slip in a message, and give them enough info where, if they want, they can look into it on their own.
"Individually, these letters are pretty goofy," Mackin adds. "But when you start weaving the tapestry of all the letters together, people might think, 'Oh yeah, corporate America is kinda stupid.' But in terms of what I can do, what makes me happiest is when people are entertained."
- 'When you start weaving the tapestry of all the letters together, people might think, "Oh yeah, corporate America is kinda stupid,"' Rich Mackin says of the corporate correspondence that fills his book Dear Mr. Mackin ?