REVIEW: Chicago Sun-Times

Paige Smoron
July 18, 1999

XX-rated marketing

Maxx Barry's name originally did not contain two X's. It's his new and improved name, a way to market himself and to market his first book, a satire about marketing.

Syrup is a fast-paced tour through L. A., Hollywood, Madison Avenue and corporate America. Your guide is Scat (who decided the name "Michael" just wasn't going to cut it in his chosen profession). The 23-year-old wants to be famous, the best kind of famous--he wants, among other things, to be "implicated in vicious rumors about Drew Barrymore's sex parties."

The best way to do this, he determines, is to make a million dollars before he turns 25. And so he comes up with a million-dollar idea, for a hip, ultracarbonated cola with an unprintable name. Will Scat sell the concept to Coca-Cola, spend his spare time hanging out with Winona Ryder, and win the hand of the lovely young executive "6"?

Stay tuned. As Barry might write the ad copy: Say goodbye to legal thrillers and hello to the marketing romance.

Barry, 26, has written a cliffhanger on every other page, and the story is easily digestible in snippets separated by bubble graphics. "It's short and snappy, like a series of TV ads," says the lanky, cheerful author. Anything can happen in his book--one climactic scene has Gwyneth Paltrow playing Warlords with a skinny guy prone to hollering, "Now is the time of the Orcish clan!"

(Barry's friends have accused him of writing the book just to meet Paltrow. "I'd like to say, honestly, I didn't do that. Gwyneth is just a great name written down. Spelled, and on the page, it looks fantastic.")

The snapshots of L. A. life are affectionately insidery, which makes the next fact somewhat jarring: Barry is an Australian who had never been to America before. Correction: Hewlett-Packard did send him to San Francisco for three days once, but "they stuck me in the bowels of Silicon Valley for 2 1/2 days, which was exactly like the corporate headquarters in Australia."

Barry didn't write what he knew, but he didn't have a choice. "It was an over-the-top story," he explains, "so I just had to set it in a place were it's all glitz and glamour, and image is reality, so it had to be L.A.

"It's not reality America, it's TV America, which we get a lot of in Australia."

Even more shocking: Barry sets most of the action at Coca-Cola. "I'm kind of hoping that Coke has a sense of humor," says Barry. "They got the legal people to write the `just kidding' bit" disclaimer in the front.

"I don't know anyone at Coke, I didn't study them or research them for it. Coke is a great symbol of a huge international company that takes a product that is basically very similar to its competitors', fizzy water, sugar water, and markets it, wraps an advertising campaign around it, to make it completely different."

In between the celebrity name-droppings and high-stakes action, Syrup serves as a marketing primer. "Marketing is like L.A.," Barry writes. "It's like a gorgeous, brainless model in L.A. A gorgeous, brainless model on cocaine having sex drinking Perrier in L.A. That's the best way I know how to describe it."

Barry, who taught business courses at two universities in Australia, intersperses "marketing case studies" among the prose: "Mktg perfume: Triple your price. This gives customers the impression of great quality. Helps profits, too."

"They're practical examples of how an unscrupulous marketer might apply marketing theories," he explains. "Like with shampoo--`Now with benzoethylhydrates!' Is that a good thing or not?

"Or with cigarettes: You defend the production of something a customer can't stop buying by claiming they have freedom of choice." Barry is hoping that if his book isn't accepted as a textbook--probably too much to ask for--then it go on the "recommended reading lists" of business majors.

For now, Barry is taking a break from the corporate world to concentrate on his writing. He worked on Syrup while still at Hewlett-Packard, sneaking off to his 1977 Toyota Corolla on lunch hours to tap on a laptop. "I'd buy a couple pies at the local shop and type away for 40 minutes," he grins. And Barry relied on friends from the Internet Writing Workshop to correct his American jargon

Viking has published the book, fittingly, with slick packaging--mock nutritional data on the back of the jacket, with the slogan "Just read it." And so far, at least the trade magazine Advertising Age has bit, excerpting the book in a splashy spread.

Fiction in Ad Age? "Marketing is becoming more and more powerful," points out Barry. "A lot of it is so sleazy and so underhanded, and yet it's so much a part of our culture. It's not inherently evil, but it's hypocritical and encourages slyness, deviousness--and it's a lot of fun to write about because of that."

His first book tour is a form of continuing education for the marketing scholar. All his press materials, for example, tout his age as 25, but he admits he had a recent birthday. "I didn't make up the whole exotic Australian thing," he insists. He's working on his next book, but won't say anything about it--trying to build some hype?

Barry does admit to one last marketing technique. If he ever writes a sequel to Syrup, he laughs, he's going to spell his name with three X's.