Marketing the Perfect Pest By Tom Cosgrove

When I encountered noted innovator and defrocked plug guru Rott Schnakebitte at yet another academic gathering (this time the Floriculture Forum, which convened a few weekends ago at the Chicago Botanical Gardens), I finally asked how he was gaining admittance to so many prestigious think-tank events. “The universities that sponsor these events are fiercely non-discriminatory,” he replied.

I told Rott I was surprised to hear that Dutch-Norwegian-Americans still faced prejudice, but Rott corrected me. “What I mean is that they don’t discriminate against credit cards, checks, or a heartfelt promise to send payment upon return the following week to one’s office.”

We agreed that such a policy was a good barometer of the continued progressive spirit of academia, and then I asked Rott if he was finding the Floriculture Forum of benefit. “Well, you know what they say,” he replied. “The worst day at an academic proceeding is still better than the best day at work.”

Rott relished these events for the considerable benefits they afforded him, particularly when held in a small, overheated venue. An infusion of what he termed “Ph.D. rays” induces in him a mild mental stimulation accompanied by a soothing physical torpor. Rott maintained that the “smart” feeling he takes back to the workaday world can last as long as three days, provided he resists the urge to turn on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” or talk to a seed broker.

“We did drift a bit into the lagoon,” Rott added. This was our code for what others might term, “Going through the looking glass.” A few years ago while on a tour in Australia, Rott and I had struck off on our own. To make a long story short, we eventually washed up on the shore of a dank lagoon where the air smelled funny, the toads tasted funnier and the flotsam and jetsam were in Technicolor.

“What steered us toward the lagoon was relatively harmless,” Rott explained. “But it was raised after a banquet during where we all consumed a risky quantity of house wine and hotel hollandaise sauce.”

“Potentiation,” I muttered.

Rott continued, “Someone said it was not enough for hort profs to recruit students interested in horticulture, convince the ‘undecided’ that there’s more action in floriculture than in eBay, hustle for funding, keep pace with departmental politics, stay current with everything growers are doing, constantly fish extension agents out of the lagoon, oh, and teach students.”

“What else could possibly be asked of these beleaguered souls?” I asked.

“Well it was suggested they should be schooling students in the finer points of marketing.”

“Yikes!” I shrieked

“I should say, though, that Dr. Nabokonot, my favorite professor at the County Alternative School, was an excellent instructor on marketing,” Rott noted. “He actually trained whiteflies to play dead. On cue, those little fellows would drop right off the leaves and land on the ground belly up!”

But Rott lost his mentor to the lure of the market. “One day, he proclaimed, ‘If you sell combs in the land of hairy people you’re dealing with a commodity; if you sell combs in the land of bald-headed people you’re dealing with a status symbol!’ He then went on sabbatical. He traveled through the South promoting his Elvis Presley-impersonator Flea Circus Revue.”

“Never saw that particular flea circus,” I quipped a bit too snippily. I was being obstinate because I know that down the road the floriculture industry will very likely deed over the remnants of its soul to “outside money.” Meanwhile, hort profs have all they can handle without having to integrate marketing into a floriculture curricula. It’s probably asking too much. But I do hope that the academics, along with growers and industry vendors, will endeavor to keep as much of the marketing initiative as possible within the industry for as long as possible.

“You know, Rott,” I mused, “Nabokonot sounds like an interesting man, but where’s the marketing connection?”

“Well, you didn’t let me finish! I lost track of Dr. Nabokonot until one night a few years ago he showed up on my front door screaming through the wind and the rain.”

“What was he screaming?”

“A new slogan: ‘Mutts were created for people who would rather love a dog than show it off, and drop-dead whiteflies were created for people who wish whiteflies would do something else besides infest poinsettias!”

Rott looked intently at me, apparently trying to gauge my reaction. “A little cerebral, but catchy,” I finally ventured. “So what’s became of the doctor?”

“Never saw him again. But I did hear from one of my former classmates that he retired early. Cashed in big. He’s a multimillionaire. Nowadays he just lays in the sun. Trains mites as a hobby.”

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