1. THE BRIEF
Corazon clicked to the slide she’d been dreading: long-term trends for brand engagement. It was dire.
She focused on the smudgy mirror at the far end of the conference room, looking past her team to her own reflection. She pulled her shoulders back, like her grandmother had instructed. She tipped her head to the side, disarming but not too flirty. When she spoke, she was a breath apologetic, but not too much: “As you can see, we have our work cut out for us.”
She turned to face the projected line graph behind her. “Year on year sales are down, but we’ve been expecting that due to the current… economic climate.”
That was the euphemism to end all euphemisms. Everybody in that over-air-conditioned room knew exactly what she meant, though, because they were all living on the same rapidly sinking ocean liner. Gregoria, a junior art director, began to nervously shred the paper cup her morning latte had come in.
“The really bad part is this.” Corazon swept her hand along the line labeled Brand Perception, which had plummeted like a stone in the aftermath of the election. “And it’s not just us. The truth is, nobody gives a shit about brands right now.”
There was dead silence around the conference table. Nobody murmured, nobody shuffled their feet. Nobody made eye contact with anyone else, either, each lost in their own private hell of solitude. She let that silence hang, suspended for a full and deeply uncomfortable minute.
Her eyes flicked over to her boss, the global creative director. He was a short man with intense eyes and, considering his age, a remarkably luxurious head of white hair. Holiday was thirty years her senior and had driven the Nike account for longer than she’d been alive, until he’d been forced into a promotion. If he were feeling prickly, he could take this as a personal insult.
Unlike everyone else, he gazed fixedly at the line graph, his index fingers steepled over his lips. Like everyone else, he said nothing.
“We need to come up with a whole new approach to stay relevant,” Corazon continued at last. “The numbers coming in show that nothing we have to say is resonating anymore. We’re seen as… shallow. Corporate. In the bad way.” She ended on a strong note, no uptalk, just like her grandmother had been coaching her to do.
Holiday quirked an eyebrow upward. “Is there a good way?” It released the tension in the room, and the team chuckled a little too hard.
“So what do young people care about right now? Let’s see.” Corazon clicked to the final slide.
Then she tapped on the bar chart on the screen behind her, point by point. “They care about the state of the world. They care about peace, and stability, and the environment. They care about civil rights, diversity, equality. In short, they care about politics.”
The assembled account team looked at each other, uncomfortable at hearing this fundamental truth spoken out loud. They cared about politics, too. Each one of them was keenly familiar with the same aching feeling of looming disaster and helplessness to avert it. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Selling running shoes while Rome burned.
Holiday shifted in his seat. “We can be political,” he said. “Our brand values are compatible with that.”
Corazon didn’t flinch. This was the part she’d been building up to, the part she’d rehearsed until she woke with the words on her lips. “We can’t do it with the same inoffensively aspirational crap we’ve been doing for years,” she said, “staking out an opinion only after it’s safe and the only people who disagree are people who were never in our demo. That doesn’t fly anymore. We have to put some skin in the game. We need to be dangerous.”
Heads around the table nodded cautiously.
“Consumers know it when they see bullshit. They’re not interested in empty words anymore. They’re not interested in garbage awareness campaigns that don’t solve anything, either. They want action.”
“So what does that mean for Nike, hot shot?” Holiday was looking at her in a new way, his chin up, his eyes narrowed. She couldn’t tell yet if it was respect or ruffled feathers. Was he going to think she was competing with him and wreck her career? Impossible to say. Nothing to do but steam forward, or die trying.
She took a deep breath. “I have an idea.”
Corazon’s phone began ringing as soon as she stepped out of the building. Her grandmother must have been watching for her to leave work with Find My Friends. “Love you, lola,” Corazon answered.
Her grandmother’s face on the tiny screen was crinkled up with concern. “How did it go?” she asked. “Did it work?”
“I don’t know yet.” Corazon surveyed the crowd of fellow commuters around her, dressed in somber clothes and somber faces. Best not be too chatty about her plans in such a public venue. “I might have already lost, but I won’t know until the creative meeting tomorrow. I can’t get my hopes up.”
“Even if you lose, you haven’t lost yet.” Her lola’s voice was fire on the other end of the line. “As long as you breathe, as long as you have a voice to speak, you have power, my Corazon. Remember where you come from.”
2. THE CONCEPT
Holiday’s office was all shelves stacked with forty years of crystal trophies, reference books, toys. His broad windows looked west, where the sun was setting over the Hudson River. The walls were orange with playful splashes of white and blue. The furniture was made of all-natural materials. It could’ve blended into a Starbucks, or an Apple Store.
Corazon loathed it. This carefully designed room tried too hard to seem fun and quirky—masquerading itself as a place for leisure. But the mask concealed the cold mercenary truth that they were all there to do work for money, in order to make someone else even more money. Late capitalism. Peak consumer culture. Layers of lies and deception.
Well, maybe she could make the lie true.
Holiday had his feet up on his desk. He turned a small object over and over in his hands and stared at the ceiling. “So you’re really serious about this.”
Corazon sat in the chair beside his desk. The rest of the key creative team was squeezed into a pair of sofas at the far end of the room, wide-eyed and entirely silent.
“Deadly serious,” she said.
“You want us to save the world.” His tone dripped disbelief, but not yet outright contempt. She hadn’t lost yet. She still had a chance.
Corazon caught his eyes and held her chin level. “Don’t you?”
Back when Corazon was in college, her friends had always joked about the dystopian future lying ahead of them. They’d never quite believed in it at the time; it was just a more grown-up version of saying Bloody Mary into the bathroom mirror with the lights out. Mostly they’d enjoyed the zing of moral superiority over those not as cynical about the iron fist of the corporate masters who would soon rule the world, or perhaps already secretly did.
Since Corazon had joined the ranks of those very corporate masters, she’d had a lot of time to reflect on a fact that her younger self had never quite realized.
Corporations are made of people. Thousands of people. And they all had to live in the same world as everybody else. Maybe they could use that power, not to rule the world, but to improve it.
Holiday stood and began pacing a neat circuit of the room. “Let’s say I think this is worth… thinking about. This isn’t going to be easy to sell in to the client.”
“Easy isn’t going to save the brand,” she said. She flexed her fingers where they rested in her lap. “Drastic measures are needed.”
Holiday tossed his toy from one hand to another. “Right now we’re only spitballing,” he warned. “What about a brand partnership?”
“To dilute the perception of risk,” he said, a bit impatiently. He stopped in front of his shelf of awards and contemplated them. “We can go in bigger and bolder if it’s a joint effort, and not just Nike.”
Corazon turned to the rest of the team. “Ideas? Anyone?”
Crickets, at first. They elbowed one another, daring anyone else to speak up. Gregoria scratched at an elbow, thoughtfully. “My cousin is on the Heineken account,” she said. “I’ll have a chat with her off the record.”
“I have some friends who went in-house at Coca-Cola,” chimed Hussein, their producer. “I’ll take them to lunch to feel them out.”
Bubba the creative technologist shifted awkwardly. “I have a hookup at Google.”
Corazon had trouble reining in her smile, even if over-enthusiasm would undermine her authority on the team. “Get NDAs and start those conversations. Get a read on the mood.”
“We’ll need some star power, too,” Holiday said from the window. He rested his fingers on the horizon. “I want a list on my desk of twenty A-list names who we think could be interested. I want Beyoncé. I want Kate McKinnon. I want George Takei.”
Corazon nodded firmly. “Consider it done.”
“We’re just spitballing,” Holiday warned again. “Don’t get your hopes up.”
“I won’t,” Corazon promised. She didn’t mean it. But some things are worth getting your heart broken.
The white man following Corazon to the subway that night could have been a regular businessman. Corazon wasn’t sure at first why she thought otherwise. Maybe it was the mirrored sunglasses, which she didn’t think she’d seen in the wild since she was fifteen, much less after dark.
Maybe it was the way he walked, like he didn’t have anywhere in particular to be. There was nobody heading toward the train at 8 p.m. that didn’t have somewhere else to get to, and fast.
Corazon quickened her stride to try to lose him, regretting that the soup place on her way was already closed for the night. Otherwise she’d stop in to avoid the creeper and pick up dinner in one elegant stroke. But the man had longer legs than her, and hurry as she might, she couldn’t increase the distance between them without outright running. If anything, he closed the gap.
There wasn’t anyone else out walking. A car flashed by; a cab, but not empty, so Corazon couldn’t try to flag it down. She briefly thought about heading back to the office to take the company car service instead, but that would mean having to walk past him. She hurried onward. The subway station, at least, was never empty.
The stranger finally caught up to her in the stairwell down to the station. He grabbed her arm and pushed her into the handrail. “You think you’re so smart,” he breathed into her ear, “but you better watch what you’re doing. Shut your mouth and keep your nose clean, and maybe you won’t get deported.”
Corazon opened her mouth and screamed, as loud as she could, just like she’d practiced in her self-defense classes. The man let go of her arm, startled.
She screamed again, so loud it rasped her throat raw. Footsteps echoed toward them. The man fled back toward the street.
A transit worker hurried up to her, a little out of breath: a large man in every sense, three weeks past needing a haircut. “You OK, lady?” he puffed. He pressed a flat hand to his chest over his fluorescent safety vest as he caught his breath. “Someone bothering you?”
“He’s gone now,” Corazon said. She clutched the rail to keep herself from sagging.
She couldn’t guess if the man somehow knew what she was proposing in the office. Was he one of the administration’s rumored thugs, somehow already privy to her plans? Or just a drive-by bigot, trying to make her feel small in her own damn country? Hers as much as anyone’s.
Either way, she wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. “Thank you for being here,” she told the transit worker. “I owe you one.”
“All in a day’s work,” he told her. He hovered nearby, his hands hanging awkwardly midair like a stuck car on a roller coaster. “You need anything else?”
“I’ll be fine now.” Corazon dodged around him and down the steps toward her train. “Don’t worry,” she called back to him. “I’ve got everything under control.”
The rounds of spitballing didn’t go as smoothly as Corazon might have hoped. For one thing, Holiday sat them out entirely. “Come to me when you have a program. I don’t want to hear a squeak about it until it’s ready.”
That left Corazon in charge of a team that didn’t know if they should be taking her lead and running with it as fast as they could, or staging a mutiny to save their own careers. They veered from one extreme to the other.
Bubba adjusted his red-framed glasses. “I don’t know if this can work no matter what we do,” he said, even more slowly than his usual easy twang. “This is just cray-cray. Who’s going to show up to any of this? Who would even stick their necks out, given…”
Corazon’s mind drifted back to the man in the subway stairwell. But she didn’t try to argue. It wasn’t a point that needed arguing; her grandmother would insist that she was losing ground by even conceding that a discussion could exist.
But not all of her team felt the same way. “That’s exactly the attitude we need to fight,” Gregoria said. She glared at Bubba, though the harrowing effect was dampened by the anime makeup she’d adopted last year. “Nike has always been about encouraging people to push out of their comfort zone. This is just another facet of the same thing.”
Bubba opened his mouth, with a belligerent look in his eye; time for Corazon to short-circuit that argument before it worked up too much momentum. “You’re right that we can’t just start with protests and expect anyone to show up,” she said. “We need to get people fired up first. We’ll need to promote the promotion.”
Hussein took it back to the practical level, bless his deeply nerdy heart. “So you’re thinking, what, an all-in integrated media campaign? Social? TV? Billboards?”
“All of that and more. But first we’ll need to develop a manifesto,” she said. “And I think we should curate one instead of creating one.”
Gregoria tapped her pen to her exquisitely outlined lips. “Mm-hmmm. Think about those walls of post-its after the election. If you collect enough tidbits from enough people, it’s beautiful. It’s art.” She had a dreamy look on her face, something private and sweet. Corazon wondered for the first time what kind of art Gregoria made in her free time; she was tight-lipped about her personal life.
“What, are you talking about user-generated content? That’s always such a crapshoot.” Bubba scratched his beard. “Remember that promotion last April that was taken down by 4Chan? There’s a lot more riding on this, so 4Chan’s gonna be a lot more interested.”
“We can make it work,” Corazon said.
“Who the hell is going to moderate that? Are you going to?”
“I didn’t say it was going to be easy.” Corazon took to the white board and began sketching out how different elements of the campaign would come together. “But there are steps we can take, since we know we’ll be a target.” The campaign flow emerged through dozens of quick strokes of a blue dry-erase marker.
“The thing I don’t get,” Hussein said at last, “is what the hell does any of this have to do with selling shoes?” Gregoria rolled her eyes.
“We don’t need them to like the shoes,” Bubba said. “We just need them to like the brand, and then they’ll feel good about buying whatever shit we’re selling.”
Corazon stepped back from the whiteboard and admired her work. “This is how I see it working, but obviously it needs a lot of fleshing out before it’s ready to pitch. Let’s get started.”
It was six weeks before Corazon felt confident enough to present the pitch to Holiday. Six weeks of mood boards, shifting Keynote slides, endless tweaking of the same two sentences. Six weeks in which the president announced he would call India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi “Dave” because it was easier to remember. There were almost hourly revelations about conflicts of interest and fresh allegations of corruption that somehow never got investigated, much less prosecuted. China circled Taiwan with a “protective cordon” of battleships.
Under it all Corazon was keenly aware of the line she was walking: provocative, yes. Inspiring, yes. But her grand ambition was just subtext. She needed to maintain a careful veneer of plausible deniability.
Finally the team pinned Holiday down for a 6 p.m. meeting to show them what they’d accomplished. If Holiday gave a thumbs up, they’d get a green light to bring it to the client.
He watched them click through the presentation with a dispassion that could be taken for boredom. He stopped them just once. “Where did you get these numbers?” he asked.
Corazon cleared her throat, then immediately regretted the show of nerves. “They’re projected from protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March.”
When Corazon reached the final slide (thanks and contact information) Holiday flicked his fingertips at the team. “Give us a minute,” he said.
They knew a dismissal when they heard one, and shuffled out obediently. Corazon practiced her invisible calming techniques: slow breath. Shoulders relaxed.
Holiday stood and paced. “You know this is…” He didn’t say impossible.
“I know,” she said. There was a hitch in her voice. Unacceptable. Slow breath, shoulders relaxed.
He steepled his fingers under his nose. “I won’t be able to sell it in. Guaranteed.”
She wilted inside, but kept her face calm. “You think not?”
“No. But maybe you can.” He thumped her on a shoulder blade, and then went back to his seat. “We’ll talk about this with the client and see where it goes. Right now it’s only talking.” His eyes blazed a warning. “But you’ll do the pitch, Corazon. You’re on your own.”
Corazon knew a dismissal when she heard one, too. She didn’t skip out, not exactly. But she did spend the next ten minutes in a bathroom stall, silently squealing into her knuckles. She still hadn’t lost.
Corazon FaceTimed her grandmother herself once she got home that night, curled up on the sofa with her grandmother’s face cradled in both her hands. “They’re going to let me pitch it, lola,” she said, breathless.
“I knew you could do it.” Her grandmother glowed with all the same joy Corazon had worked to suppress in the office.
Corazon bit her lip. “Tell me again about People Power.”
Her grandmother’s creased face collapsed into the origami configuration of long-cherished pride. “Our finest hour,” she said.
“What was it like?”
“It was frightening,” her grandmother said. “It was wild and terrible and we didn’t know if we were all going to die or if we could somehow change everything. But we couldn’t suffer any more. We couldn’t not do it.”
3. THE PITCH
The Nike conference room was heavy on aluminum. The lights were too bright, the casters on the chairs were too loud, and everything echoed a little too much. There was no messy conference speaker phone in here, no exposed cables; the table was bare, save for elegant glasses of water nobody was drinking, and pitchers beaded with sweat.
Corazon had initially pitched the concept to only the Nike marketing team, but she was fast-tracked to a meeting with the executive suite: the brand president, the CEO, the general counsel. They were all decades older than Corazon. And they all seemed vastly annoyed to be there.
Corazon swallowed hard. It wasn’t normal that she’d even meet these executives at all. Typically she’d only have to present to those internal marketing people once, and they would in turn bring her ideas to their bosses. She wasn’t ready.
Too late to turn back now.
So far she’d set up the pitch only in broad tactical terms. She’d described massive in-person activations and viral celebrity-led branded content. She’d tried to set up the sweeping goal of Nike becoming the voice for a generation. She had to prime them first. And then she’d light the powder and see if it burned or not.
But now she’d reached that moment of truth. She clicked forward to Gregoria’s stroke of genius: the Nike swoosh tripled, to echo the three arrows of the Antifascist Circle.
“It’s time for Nike to fight fascism in America,” she said.
The room erupted into furious cross-chatter. She waited for it to die down.
“Here’s the core problem we need to solve,” Corazon said. “The current administration is bad for Nike. Not just for short-term brand image, but for long-term sales. Growing income inequality means a larger share of the population will have less and less disposable income. Political and economic instability means what money people have they’re going to save. And the foreign policies in play mean global sales for American brands are going to dry up like the face of Mars. It’s already started.”
Holiday sat next to her, silent. She looked at him for support. He averted his eyes. If her ship went down, he wasn’t going with it.
She clicked through a few elegantly designed slides explaining this looming disaster. “This is only going to get worse if nobody does something about it.”
The CEO leaned back and folded his arms. “So you want us to do something about it?”
Corazon didn’t smile this time. She looked straight at him, flat and challenging. “Can you trust anyone else to do it for you?”
“Is this even legal?” The man next to the CEO scowled. Corazon tried to remember who was who from the brief round of introductions before the meeting. He was the EVP of… something. “This is treason, isn’t it?”
The client’s general counsel wet her lips. “No, actually. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. We still have that.”
“For now,” Corazon said.
The EVP’s eyebrows went up. “The investors will have our heads,” he said.
“Do you think that our investors support this mess we’ve fallen into?” That was the… brand president who had spoken up? Corazon had made notes at the beginning, but she didn’t dare check them now.
“They don’t, we have numbers on it,” said another EVP. Investor relations, Corazon remembered. She only nodded thanks, but in her heart she sang that EVP a thousand songs of praise.
“What happens if the administration comes after us?” That was the counsel again. “They won’t play this clean.”
Corazon shrugged. “You’ve seen your own sales trends,” she said. “If we don’t do something, we’re going down whether they come after us or not. What do you have to lose?”
The CEO rolled back a few inches, his hands folded over his belly. “What KPIs would you set for something like this?” KPI: the key performance indicator. The promise made from the agency to the client about exactly how well a program would work; how you both knew if you’d succeeded.
This was it. Corazon smiled the bold, confident smile she’s practiced in the mirror for ten minutes every morning for the last eight weeks, and for the first time said the words that had appeared on not a single slide or brief, that had been uttered in no meetings, that had even so underpinned every word and every image.
“Regime change,” she said.
The CEO brought his fist down on the conference table like a gavel. The beautiful glasses of water shivered. “Do it.”
“How fast did it happen?” Corazon asked her grandmother, later. She lay on her bed, staring at the cobweb in the corner above her, drifting aimlessly in the still air.
“The pressure was building up for a long time. It took years for people to get more angry than they were afraid. Some say the Revolution took about three years, from the time Ninoy Aquino was shot until Marcos ran away with his stolen billions of pesos. But when the right moment finally came, when the people woke up, it all happened in only a few weeks. Marcos stole the election and then he was fleeing the country in only a few weeks.”
“So we need to make sure that people get more angry than afraid… very fast.”
Corazon wiggled her toes thoughtfully. “What do you think finally tipped the balance?”
“We won with the truth, Corazon. We won by taking over TV and radio stations and broadcasting the truth. But mostly we won by making the people know they were not alone.”
The kickoff meeting was… well. It was something. Holiday wasn’t there; he was busy putting out fires on an automotive account over a disastrous consumer test. But there were a slew of new faces on board to implement Corazon’s ambitious strategy. There was the social media director, the media planner, the accounts supervisor, a whole team of art directors and junior copywriters and event producers and brand strategists and UX people and…
Corazon took a deep breath. It was the most crowded room she’d ever been in charge of. The memory of her grandmother’s voice soothed her: “It’s their job to do what you tell them,” she’d said. “They have to listen, and they have to be nice.”
She laid out the overall strategy and timeline as quickly as she could. Eyes grew wide. Hands grew restless.
“Is this… is this past Legal?” asked one of the associate media buyers.
Corazon turned steely. She made direct eye contact with the junior buyer, held it a little longer than she wanted to. There was no place on the team for dissent or for doubters. “All we’re doing is giving the audience a platform for their concerns,” Corazon said. “And the project is already greenlit by the client. We have an opportunity here to do some amazing work. Let’s give this everything we’ve got.”
Nike as a brand had always been about striving. Not invariably so; the Mars Blackmon ads were mostly just funny, and so was the Lil’ Penny campaign. And sometimes they were more about the win than the process. But at its best and most influential, Nike had made itself a symbol of improving yourself, and making an impact on the world. Doing better. Being better.
They’d even dabbled directly in politics before with an extensive campaign promoting Title IX; little girls talking about the benefits of sports. It was beautiful, if not controversial. And it had helped to sway hearts and minds, as beautifully produced media often did.
Corazon didn’t see how this would be any different. Her goal was no different. She wanted people to achieve greatness in their own way. To express themselves. To strive. All she needed to do was paint in the big picture. It wasn’t about muscles or body fat. It wasn’t about health. It was about living. About achieving greatness.
It was about overcoming obstacles. And wasn’t that the core value Nike promoted?
She wasn’t sure the whole team was sold on the idea. But it didn’t really matter that much, in the end. All they had to do was follow her lead, and she’d steer the ship. This was what she was born to do.
And yet. A thought struck her as she closed out the meeting. “Remember, all of you have signed NDAs with the agency and with the client. Honor them. I don’t want word of this to get out. Not just off social. Not on subways, not to your friends, not to your mom.”
The news that night was full of the usual horrifying mix of bluster, misinformation, and doomsaying. Corazon clicked from stream to stream, determined to get a reading on the pulse of public sentiment. But public sentiment was too varied, too wide, too much.
In Washington state, thanks to funding cuts, a poorly maintained section of Snoqualmie Pass had been destroyed by flash floods, cutting the I-90 artery and creating a major shipping crisis. Click.
The Canadian prime minister had ended all pretense of amicability and given a landmark speech threatening to dismiss its American ambassadors and completely sever diplomatic ties with the United States. Click.
There was a salmonella epidemic sweeping through the Plains states, but leaks from the CDC and FDA indicated that the agencies were too short-handed to look into the situation, much less solve it. Click.
There were rumors, impossible to believe but impossible not to, of a pending executive order to ban the sale of skirts longer than 30 inches. Click.
Congress was mulling an “infrastructure tax” of 30% of sales price per year on all electric vehicles, on the grounds that such car owners weren’t paying taxes on gasoline. Click.
Fifteen sixth-graders had been killed in an industrial accident at a sugar refinery in Louisiana, the combined result of the Department of Education’s new Early Start Job Training Initiative and the defunding of OSHA.
Finally she slid her tablet onto the floor and lay in the dark. Too much. A new catastrophe in every moment. It was too late at night to call her grandmother, so she texted instead.
I’m really scared
The reply was already waiting for Corazon when she woke up. That means you’re doing something important 🙏😇🔥
The push to bring in brand partners went very poorly. Google wasn’t in, and neither were Facebook or Apple. They sent back terse messages wishing Nike luck in its endeavors and declining the opportunity to move ahead.
Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Disney were more enthusiastic. At first. Surprisingly, Starbucks bowed out before the rest; their brand was pretty progressive — that “latte-sipping liberal” epithet hadn’t come from nowhere — but they weren’t ready for a gamble as big as that. Not yet. Not while they still hoped they could make a deal with the volcano and not get burned.
Talks with Disney got a little further, until the higher-ups caught wind of what the marketing team was up to. Disney was a media company, after all, and the media were having a blockbuster time lately.
Coca-Cola never said no. But after four weeks of back-and-forth, Corazon tried to nail them down for a meeting and their contact just… stopped calling back and answering emails. Her assistant took endless messages and made endless chipper apologies. Corazon fumed. At least the others had said no.
Finally she sent an email to the account manager asking her to pass on the bad news that it looked like Nike was going to be in this alone. She scowled at her computer screen anticipating the fallout.
Moments later, Hussein came to her desk with a grin on his face like he’d hit the Powerball and already had the bunker on his new private island stocked up to weather the next two hundred years. “I have something that makes up for Coke flaking on us,” he said.
Corazon sighed. “What’s that?”
“Beyoncé is in,” he said. The impossible grin got wider. “And apparently she got to talking with some of her friends and colleagues. We’ve been fielding phone calls all morning from CAA, ICM, William Morris. Anyone who’s anyone wants to be a part of this.”
Corazon stared at him. “Holy shit.”
“True story, brah,” Hussein said. He rapped on her desk twice. “Lot of people want to see a lot of change. It’s happening.”
The final days of planning were filled with budgets and plans, contracts and final proofs. During the home stretch, Corazon presented to Holiday twice a week, detailing the progress she’d made and the roadblocks they’d encountered. On the fifth such meeting, Holiday sat her down with a sober look and closed his office door.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Holiday steepled his fingers under his nose, stared at the gray and sluggish river. “We got a call from the Department of Justice. They said they’re concerned about what we’re up to, and if we don’t get our act together we might be brought in for treason.”
Corazon’s heart pounded in her chest. Of course word had gotten out. Of course it had. Too many people knew the secret. “What have we told them?”
“The agency’s lawyers laughed in their faces. And we’ve got a press release about it going out as soon as possible. We’re gonna get so much earned media, it’s going to be brilliant. You’re doing a good job, Corazon. Keep it up.”
Her heart swelled. According to agency gossip, Holiday had made every single copywriter and creative director under him cry at some point by telling them they’d turned in shit. Usually he was right, but in the pressure cooker of tight deadlines and warring visions, any lack of tiny courtesies could become a painful razor to the soul.
But the flip side of this meant that when he said a kind word, it counted tenfold. He was blowing sunshine up nobody’s ass. “Thank you,” she said. “I… that means a lot from you.”
“Oh, and one more thing,” Holiday said. “We’re pushing the launch up to go along with the press release so we can leverage this. Don’t fuck it up.”
5. THE LAUNCH
Launch day came on a bright Tuesday, amid a flurry of reports that the executive office had pushed through a series of contracts requiring the president’s own hotel properties be the preferred vendor for all federal travel going forward. Another day, another straw that was somehow never the last one.
The first part of Corazon’s campaign was the manifesto. That would take about two weeks.
They seeded a few aspirational pieces of video right away, to model the kinds of things they were expecting from legitimate users. In one of them, a gay couple hugged on camera, and the shorter one said, “I’m making a world where love is love is love.” In another, a child in a wheelchair looked at the camera with determination and said, “I don’t want to die.”
They also front-loaded the Beyoncé video, a beautiful declaration of strength and defiance. They had enough of those celebrity videos to release a new one every day for the duration of the campaign. It was going to be so amazing.
The press went wild. Beyoncé, treason, Nike, the Justice Department, hope, plus something small that people could do to feel useful? The clickbait farms didn’t even have to work at the story. It was a done deal from the start.
And then all Corazon and her team could do was wait, breaths held, to see what America had to tell them. The video submissions came in slowly at first; seven videos on the first day, all of them from friends of the team at the agency. The next day there were forty submitted. And then another fifty.
Corazon checked the numbers obsessively, monitoring impressions and submissions as if every good submission gave her another hour’s breath.
The dick pics started coming in on day four, far and away flooding out all of the legitimate submissions. And the hardcore porn. And the snuff films.
That last one shocked Corazon, though she realized later that it shouldn’t have. There was an industry joke about TTP — time to penis. Any time you created an opportunity for people to express themselves, it was a ticking time bomb until the endless phalluses. Photos, video, construction tools. People had made enormous penis monuments in Minecraft and in Glitch, Imzy and Facebook and Tumblr.
It was an ancient human obsession. She’d heard there were old Roman fortifications with penis graffiti on them, too.
Well, that’s why there was a moderation team in place for this stuff. Corazon made sure to ply them with a generous supply of coffee and noodles. They were more than earning their keep.
Her phone rang at 2 a.m., and god help her, Corazon answered it, bleary-eyes and croak-voiced as she was. “What’s going on?”
It was Hussein. “The server is down,” he said. He didn’t sound a lot more awake than she did.
“So fix it.” Corazon snapped. This wasn’t the sort of thing that should’ve required any effort on her part, and especially not at that hour. Sleep was a precious resource.
“No, I mean… we’ve been attacked. We’re not going to be able to bring it back up. Nobody knows what those fuckers did, but it killed the platform.”
Corazon took a deep breath. “Let’s go to Plan B.”
The next day, in ten cities across the United States, Nike unveiled kiosks for the campaign manned by street teams. Anyone could stop by and record their fifteen-second contribution to the final manifesto.
Another press release went out, purportedly an apology to the public for the technical problems they’d suffered. It didn’t make any accusations on the face of it, but Holiday pulled a few strings to make sure there was enough grist to start an unstoppably delicious rumor mill. Had the Feds taken out the campaign in retaliation or in fear? Russian hackers working against democracy? Who hated aspiration so much that they’d try to silence a shoe company of all things?
There were lines around the block to submit videos on the first day. The next day there were people camping two and three hours before the kiosks opened to get their chance to say something. Corazon made an executive decision and gave the street teams a budget to pass out gelato and energy drinks to the people who stood waiting in line to get the sensation that for once, their voice had mattered, and the world had heard them.
Corazon spent hours sorting through the best videos, the ones the moderators had surfaced for her, and then more hours working with the video editor to assemble them into something with a dynamic emotional flow.
It was a tall order. The montage needed to be inspiring, but the kind of inspiring with teeth. It needed to be a projection of strength, a declaration of the possibility of change. It needed to make people angry more than they were afraid.
And it worked. The beautiful curated pieces unfolded in an endless looping stream. It was an intense aesthetic experience, seeing all of those faces, hearing all of those voices talking about their hopes and fears, the things they wanted to change, the things they’d bleed to fight against. The videos played on a two-hundred-foot wraparound display in Times Square and on sister screens in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Miami, Austin.
The microsite was still down and Bubba’s team was struggling with a last-minute rebuild, so they moved the manifesto to YouTube and began a series of extensive leaks to Variety, AdAge, and the LA Times.
The president was, it turned out, deeply displeased by all of this. He tweeted extensively about Beyoncé’s weight and speculated on the quality of her marriage, insisted New Balance shoes were far superior, and claimed that every video uploaded had been professionally produced and starred only paid actors; no real people felt that way about him.
The controversy brought so much more attention to the campaign than it would have otherwise that they beat their KPIs for phase one by a factor of twenty.
The conflict won the media cycle for a full three days, until a leak from the executive office said the president was planning on covering the White House with gold leaf, and a video surfaced showing that he’d propositioned a Saudi princess at an economic summit in Moscow.
It was a great start. But all of this was only the beginning; uniting people in excitement. Creating buzz. Buzz wasn’t always enough; Snakes on a Plane had buzz to a supernatural degree, but nobody had shown up. Feet on the street: that was the next phase. It was the biggest activation Corazon had ever envisioned. But would anybody come?
On Sunday Corazon went to church with her grandmother. As the service wound down, she stared up at the heady fresco of Christ on the cross, lifted on high by angels. It was supposed to be a reassuring image: a reminder that somebody else had suffered on her behalf so that she wouldn’t have to.
But the idea that people could only be freed through the suffering of a third party seemed stark and terrible now. Whose suffering would it take to solve this problem? And if it was Corazon’s own suffering, was she strong enough to endure it?
After a time, she felt the weight of her grandmother’s hand on her back. “Corazon, are you lost?” she asked, amused.
Corazon smiled — the real smile, not the practiced one — and stood up. “Just thinking.”
“There’s someone who wants to meet you,” her grandmother said. She took Corazon’s hand and led her to the parish hall.
“Not a blind date,” Corazon groaned. “What have I told you about setting me up?”
Her grandmother pushed her into a seat at a long table covered with a plastic cloth. “Not a date!”
The old man seated across from Corazon looked at her intently. “Is this your girl, Mila?” he asked.
“Yes.” Corazon’s grandmother glowed. “She is the one I told you about.”
Corazon looked between the two of them. “What is…?”
The old man stuck out an age-spotted hand. His wrists under his cuffs were too thin, his skin translucent. “My name is Danilo,” he said.
“Corazon.” She shook the hand gently, unwilling to crush the bird-bones of Danilo’s hand. “Are you and my grandmother… friends?”
“Old enemies.” He smiled at her grandmother sadly. “She was a revolutionary, and God preserve me, I was on the losing side of it.”
Her grandmother settled into the seat between them, at the end of the table. “You were a coward,” she said fondly.
“I was wrong.” Danilo turned back to Corazon. “I want to warn you about what’s coming for you.”
Corazon looked at her hands. “I know,” she said. Now she switched the genuine smile for the practiced one.
This was the part she’d been keeping from her grandmother: “what’s coming” had started to come already. That very morning she’d opened her apartment door to find a decapitated pigeon lying in a puddle of its own viscera. It wasn’t clear if it was a gift from a generous cat or an ungenerous spirit, but Corazon had her own guess.
And that was only the latest incident. She’d been quoted in that initial launch day press release, and ever since then she’d been buried under a tsunami of death and rape threats on social media, calls to her office phone number, and hacking attempts. She’d lost control of her Pinterest account, not that that mattered so much, and her Metafilter account, which was a lot more upsetting. Two-factor had saved her from worse, so far.
“You don’t know.” Danilo looked around to be sure nobody in the parish hall was too interested in their conversation. He coughed into a withered hand. “They will kill you if they can,” he whispered. “Mila likes to talk forever about making people more angry than afraid. But don’t underestimate the people who are more afraid than angry. Their fear makes them irrational, and you cannot know what they will do.”
Her grandmother broke in. “Don’t try to frighten her,” she chided. “Corazon is too bold to be stopped by you.”
“I don’t mean to stop her.” Danilo coughed again. “Corazon, be strong. Keep fighting. The world needs you right now.”
“I’m not afraid,” Corazon said. She was lying, of course. But her grandmother didn’t need to know that.
6. THE REVOLUTION
When Corazon got to the agency Monday morning, the offices and wide-open workspaces were completely bare. The screens were all gone, the papers confiscated. Even the mood boards Gregoria has put together were gone and the whiteboards had all been erased.
The agency’s head of IT met Corazon at her desk. Martina was a sleek woman in her mid-40s, with just the right amount of natural makeup on, just the right three pieces of jewelry, heels that were solid and authoritative. She looked deeply unhappy.
“What’s going on?” Corazon asked her. But she had already guessed.
“I can’t tell you,” Martina said. “All I can tell you is that we’ve had to take your equipment and… well, it was confiscated.”
Corazon could read between the lines. The agency had received an NSA letter, or something like it. The federal government was investigating her. Her clock was ticking down even faster than she’d expected. Phase two hadn’t even launched yet — not until the next day.
“What do I do?” Corazon asked. “How are we supposed to get any work done?”
Martina puffed her cheeks. “We can order in some new equipment,” she said. “It’s not in the budget, but there might be something we can do with insurance. I’m already in talks with legal. But,” she crossed her arms, shifted to the other foot, “I’ve had to terminate your access to all of your accounts. For security reasons.”
Corazon’s heart skipped a beat, then another. “I see,” she said quietly. “Am I fired, or…?”
“You’ll have to talk to Holiday about that,” said Martina. “I’m not HR.” She looked around, nervous, and lowered her voice. “I really respect what you’ve been doing here,” she said. “I’m really sorry.” And then she swiveled on her sensible heel and walked to the elevator.
Gregoria arrived in the same elevator as Bubba. They looked at Corazon and each other, nervously. “What’s going on?” Bubba asked. “Did they move us to another floor or something?”
Corazon handed him a twenty. “Do me a favor? Go get some doughnuts and a Box of Joe? I’ll fill you in as soon as I have any clue what to tell you.” She sighed. “Guess I’ve got to talk to Holiday.”
Holiday wasn’t in yet, so Corazon tried to wait on his sofa, staring out at the river. The Hudson was the same as it ever was, choppy and unromantic. But sitting still was impossible, so she paced his office instead, looking closely at all the detritus of his life and career.
Tucked away into a corner next to a copy of a Seth Godin book, she found a framed black and white photo she’d never noticed before. It was Holiday, long-haired and angry. He held a sign in his hands that said “Heil Nixon.”
“Good morning,” Holiday said from the doorway.
She jumped. “Good morning,” she said, and tried to put her game face on. The veneer of poise and friendliness was slippery today, and she wasn’t sure she’d wrestled it into place.
Holiday had two cups of coffee, and he handed one to her. “Sit, please.” He nodded at the sofa. “I guess you’ve already seen the, ah, operational problems we’ve run into.”
She nodded and sipped the coffee. Hazelnut latte. How had he known she liked hazelnut? “Am I fired?” she asked.
Holiday grimaced. “Leave of absence while we review your employment records.” He looked meaningfully at the corners of the room. What did he mean? Had the room been bugged?
She clutched her coffee tighter. “What about the campaign?” she asked. “There’s so much left to—”
Holiday spoke the next words very, very carefully, with immaculate diction. “We’ve been instructed to stop the campaign,” he said. “Do you have access to the resources you need to pull the plug?” He shook his head no, ever so slightly.
When she caught on, Corazon’s smile flickerd on. The real one. “I don’t see how we could. The key art has already gone out, and with all of our records gone, we have no way to know who to contact to change anything. The wheels are already in motion.”
“That’s a terrible shame.” Holiday sat back, satisfied. “I suppose all we can do now is see what happens.”
Corazon hadn’t lied. Tuesday was the launch of phase two, and it began with a blitzkrieg of a media buy the likes of which had never been done before in the history of advertising. Buses, video pre-roll, billboards, magazine and TV ads. The message was inescapable: everywhere people were, there was Nike. “Had enough? Take it outside.”
There was a list of times and places. This is where Corazon hadn’t asked Nike for a signoff. If she hadn’t already been given a leave of absence, she might’ve been fired for this; Nike knew she was arranging “in-person activations,” but they weren’t in the usual high-visibility, high-traffic places. Forget the National Mall. Corazon wasn’t interested in just putting on a show.
She wanted to shut it all down.
Her targets were the White House, the president’s hotel locations, his retail partners, government buildings. If she had her way, nobody would get in or out.
If anybody showed up, anyway. That wasn’t an easy bet. Early on there had been massive protests, glorious ones. But between riot police, the continued onslaught on democratic ideals, and simple fatigue, those protests had gradually died down.
Only one way to find out. She went to the grounds where the New York event would start four hours early. She already had her event badge, and she had a bad feeling that if she went home again, someone might be waiting there for her.
She held her breath, and she waited.
The first wave of protesters came on time, almost bashful. They were mostly older than Corazon had expected. Middle-aged people, soft in the middle, tired from working a long day. The street team handed them signs and coached them in chants.
The signs were beautiful, the logo subtle; Gregoria had been right, it turned out, and making them pop more would have just been crass.
There were a few hundred people, and then a few thousand. Corazon’s fingers itched to get information on how protests were going elsewhere, but without access to her agency email she couldn’t coordinate anything.
When the second wave of protesters came around 8 p.m., the street team passed out coffee, hot cocoa, and cookies. These were younger and hipper, more diverse, louder. They brought some of their own signs and they made up their own chants.
When the third wave came at midnight, the street team had run out of supplies, but by then the protest had taken on a life of its own. Streamers burst through the air. The fireworks popped. Kaepernick came onto a makeshift stage to lead the crowd in a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
Somebody pulled down a stop sign; Corazon watched it float away down the street like a crowd surfer. The giddy feeling of togetherness made her feel drunk and powerful, like anything could happen. Like maybe this would work.
She didn’t go home that night.
Neither did anyone else.
Dawn came. Noon came. The protests continued. Clusters of people peeled away to eat, to sleep for a few hours, to change clothes. But the gravity of the event grew steadily, and more people arrived than left.
By the time twenty-four hours had gone by, there wasn’t a single person in the world who hadn’t been exposed to Nike branding through the news media. And just about everyone had voluntarily engaged with either the branded content itself or with the earned media talking about it.
In Washington, D.C., protesters began to sing in front of the Capitol building. The roar was clearly audible even from the White House itself. The president went on a Twitter rampage from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., complaining about the inconsiderate amount of noise being made, the ungrateful waste of public resources, how the protesters were nothing but a bunch of self-centered criminals and rapists.
His Florida residence was rendered inaccessible, thanks to protesters crowding the airport runway. The president fled to New York instead, but didn’t find respite there, either. The protests went on the next night, and the next. Nike stock fell precipitously, and then, curiously, it began to rise.
The crowd took on the convivial tenor of a blackout or other minor disaster; people standing close together shared water and snacks, and cleared the way for others to make it to the bathroom. A protective cordon formed around a blind woman at an intersection to keep her from being knocked around by careless strangers. The chants and songs continued until people grew hoarse.
According to social media, the same thing was happening elsewhere. The streets were choked so hotel guests and shoppers couldn’t get through. The affected businesses were brought to their knees and kept there. And the protests grew so large that Corazon’s careful targeting became irrelevant. Whole cities were brought low. Businesses declared themselves closed because no employees had shown up.
The president signed an executive order that all gatherings of more than five people were sedition. The crowd took up chants about freedom of assembly. Somebody’s magnificent hand-painted bill of rights from a protest in Indiana got eighty thousand shares in two hours.
On the fourth day, the tanks rolled up to the edge of the crowd in New York, slim and lethal. A young black man with a megaphone climbed up onto a turret to address the crowd. “You are ordered to disperse.” His voice bounced off the buildings and echoed away. “This assembly is in violation of federal law.”
Corazon’s social feed had turned into madness: there were helicopters and fighter jets circling. The photos were blurry, the messages short and frightened. It was the Army; the National Guard; it was private mercenaries.
Corazon pushed her way to the front and flashed her event badge to cross the police barrier.
She stood as tall as her five feet even permitted, dressed head to toe in this year’s hottest Nike athleisure, and addressed the National Guard officer directly. No matter what happened here, this was a brilliant photo opp.
Scratch that: this wasn’t a photo opp. This was bigger; this was history. She tried to tune out the cameras leveled at her to focus on the moment at hand. On that young man with the megaphone, who looked just as frightened and alone as she had felt before she’d started to act. The name stitched to his jacket said WASHINGTON.
She recited the First Amendment, slow, loud and clear. By the time she got a few words in, the idea had spread and the whole crowd recited along with her. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Young Mr. Washington with the megaphone looked shaken. “I’m afraid you’ll have to—”
“Did you swear to uphold the Constitution?” she asked him.
He lowered the megaphone. “Yes,” he said.
“Then it’s your job to protect us,” she said. “Are you gonna do it, or what?” Her phone was going insane in her pocket, buzzing like a kicked hive of wasps.
Washington raised the megaphone again and turned it on his company. “Stand down,” he told them. “Stand down. The people are speaking. They have a right to be here, and we swore an oath.”
In the end, one hundred million people participated in protests in the United States alone. They took place in every state in the union, in every city, in every township. Some were organized by Nike, but once emboldened, once they’d seen they were not alone in a willingness to fight, the public took measures into their own hands.
Three weeks, five days, and nineteen hours after Nike dropped that first video starring Beyoncé, the president went on live television. He was sweating and gray-skinned; he looked like he hadn’t slept even a moment since the campaign had begun. Maybe not even since the election.
“I’ll get to the point,” he said. “I resign. It’s what you want so it’s what you get, right? You people don’t deserve me anyway. I’m the best president, the smartest president, but you aren’t good enough for me. You don’t deserve me anyway. I quit.”
Corazon’s heart surged. Finally he’d said something true and honest: the people didn’t deserve him. They deserved something much, much better.
As a parting shot he flipped the bird on a national broadcast. “Fuck Nike,” he said. “Bunch of assholes who sell ugly shoes made by toddlers in Singapore.”
7. THE POST-MORTEM
At last Corazon collapsed into her grandmother’s arms, the adrenaline of a week finally gone and leaving her more than halfway to hallucinating. Her grandmother guided her to the guest bedroom and helped her out of her jacket. She stroked Corazon’s hair gently in the cool and dark. “Sleep. You deserve it.”
“I will.” Corazon lay down, rested her head on her grandmother’s knee, and closed her eyes. Her voice grew faint and burred. “What happened after the Revolution, lola?”
Her grandmother’s hand stilled. “It was ugly for a while. There were more protests, fights. People were kidnapped. But even that was better than it had been before. We were free.”
“But things got bad again, didn’t they? So you emigrated here?” She was all but asleep now.
Her grandmother sighed and eased out from under her. “The fight is never really over, apó. You have to keep at it. The bad men never go away, they only wait until you let your guard down.”
Corazon was completely asleep by the time her grandmother clicked the bedroom door shut.
The vice president was sworn in the next day with very little pomp. The national zeitgeist took on the spear of “never again.” There was even talk of a new constitutional convention, surprisingly from the right as much as from the left. It had been a good run, but now everyone understood that there were flaws in the system.
Corazon woke up to find her personal email had exploded while she was occupied with making history. She’d already received invitations to give case studies and presentations around the globe. She was invited to give a TED talk, invited to join think tanks she’d never even heard of before.
There was an email from Holiday, too. It was brisk and impersonal, but she knew better than to take that to heart. Upon review of her work, it said, the Agency had decided that she should be entitled to as much vacation as she needed right now. But her job was waiting for her when she got back.
Oh, and Nike had asked for her, specifically, to be the new creative lead on their global strategy going forward.
They were going to sell so many shoes.