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February 13, 2000|By Michael Mechanic

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Jan. 30, 2040: I could hardly believe my eyes.

There was old Bunbury, after all these years, strolling along Fifth Avenue in Chase Manhattan in the same old Armani top hat and tails -- he always had been a bit of a fop. But I was glad to see him. It brought back memories.

"Where've you been, old man?" I said.

"Oh, here and there," he replied. "I lived with my betrothed in Starbuckstown for a dozen or so years, but that relationship didn't end terribly well, you see.

"So I then landed a situation at the Netscape division in Nantucket. Net, which, since the consolidation, has been renamed Netscape-by-the-Sea."

"Are you there still?" I inquired.

"They canned me in '21," said my old acquaintance. "The city was downsized after LosAngeles.Com was annexed by Microsoft South, and we lost our living cubicles to clear the way for the new company's Eastern branch. Then, only last year, I moved back to Jersey Online."

After my encounter with Bunbury, I began to reflect on the completeness of our transformation: What they used to call the "information superhighway" was no longer distinguishable in any way from the ordinary highway. The advertising excesses of the late 20th century, once naysayed by curmudgeons and embittered Luddites coast to coast, had finally come to fruition.

And, ironically enough, we now adhere to the old Japanese model in which the corporation takes care of us, and we take care of the corporation.

It was inevitable. Even when Bunbury and I were lads, the writing was on the wall, or, as the young ones now say: "The beta was ready for prime time."

The frenzy began pre-2000, when Half.Com, a company in what used to be Pennsylvania (and became Sylvania after the light-bulb manufacturer bought it) decided to get some cheap publicity by convincing the town of Halfway, Ore., to temporarily change its name to Half.Com in exchange for a paltry 75 grand and a bunch of free computers for the elementary school.

But the change soon became permanent, and the trend -- taken a step further -- caught on like wildfire: Cities small and large began merging with private corporations in exchange for hefty infusions of cash to fix potholes, pay cops and save deteriorating schools and municipal buildings from termites. Soon enough, the corporations began pushing out elected officials, though they typically kept a few around for ceremonial purposes.

Oregon became Shoesbury, capital Niketown; Mayor Willie Brown sold San Francisco to the Haas family, which renamed it Levitas; Washington retained its name merely to avoid paperwork (though the D.C. now stands for Dot Com) after the capital was purchased by a coalition of defense contractors -- a purchase that began in the 1980s, but wasn't completed until 2014. And so on.

Not that Half.Com marked advertising's first incursion into public life. In 1999, long before Reebok bought up Stoughton in Massachusetts, the shoemaker began teaming up with public school districts in the Pennzoil subsidiary formerly known as Texas. These "Team Reebok" schools allowed the company to display ad banners and logos, and in exchange offered student discounts on shoes and support for school athletic programs.

Throughout much of the 1990s, the Coca-Cola Co., which recently bought Bolivia, and its rival soft drink maker, Pepsico, were engaged in similar efforts. Each offered millions in financial incentives, from sales kickbacks to athletic scoreboards to computer software, in order to lock up exclusive marketing agreements with hundreds of public school districts and universities.

In March 1998, Greenbriar High School in Evans, Ga., sponsored a "Coke in Education Day," to vie for a $10,000 prize the company offered. Faculty and students staged a day of cola-based activities: A Coke exec discussed his job in a class setting; chemistry students measured the cola's sugar content (substantial); and the entire student body, donning Coca-Cola T-shirts, spelled out the word "Coke" for a school photo. But when one ungrateful student, Mike Cameron, pulled off his Coke T-shirt to reveal a Pepsi shirt, school officials were aghast. They suspended him, naturally.

That was what the old days were like. Such things were actually considered newsworthy back then. People would complain about the corporate deals with publishing houses that allowed product names to figure prominently in elementary-school textbooks, teaching not only reading and arithmetic, but brand loyalty. And parents used to fret about fast-food outlets in school cafeterias.

Nobody complains anymore. And why would they? When advertising finally prevailed, so did we. Just look around: Castro is long dead. Elian Gonzalez grew up a proud American, with many possessions. The average Beijing resident now tools around in a late-model hydrogen-powered Buick. And we have all the things we'll ever need, at least until new needs are manufactured.

The business world has taught us that we are commercial beings by nature, and why resist nature?

They showed us how to register our babies at birth as subsidiaries of ourselves, the parent corporations. We grow up loving our parent corporations, and later learn to love our subsidiaries.

The corporations take care of us, and we, of them -- unless somebody is offered a better deal. We are free at last. There is no longer any need to fear. We are free at last.

Michael Mechanic, an Oakland free-lance writer and editor, wrote this article for the San Francisco Examiner.

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