It isn’t often that I get to use my fantasy/sci-fi novelist background in my “real job” of being a marketing PhD student, but it occasionally happens. One of the most fun instances of this I’ve seen so far happened this past week. I had assigned group projects, for which the students had to make up a new product and develop a marketing plan. The more creative the product, I told them, the better. This was a marketing class, not an engineering class, so they could feel free to “invent” something that wouldn’t actually work without worrying about it.
And so one group wrote a marketing plan for a time travel machine.
This is where things got fun. “All right,” I told them when they proposed this idea. “Tell me about this time machine of yours. Does it go to the past or the future or both?”
They hadn’t thought that out yet. Did it matter?
Oh yes, I told them. If they want to just use a time machine for their own personal use, either is fine. But if they’re going to start marketing something, they’ll have different issues of national security and their own personal safety to deal with if they go into the past versus the future. If you go into the past, you “just” need to worry about changing history and screwing up the present. (Easily solved, by the way: either create a machine that is “out of phase” with history so you can’t interact with or be seen by historical people – great for archaeologists, not so much fun for wannabe-heroes – or, as this student group decided to do, create a new identical-to-ours parallel universe every time the machine is activated, so any actions you take won’t have any impact in our world.)
If you go into the future, however, you may be able to bring back knowledge that could have military or political significance for today’s world governments. Going into the past is a “vacation” or historical expedition. Going into the future could reshape the world balance of power. As marketers, we really don’t want the things we sell to get major governmental attention. Especially not the sort that ends with the product’s creators dead in an alley somewhere and the time machine in the hands of the highest bidder.
The students decided to stick with going into the past. Smart move.
The next big question was how to market this product. Would you be selling the machine itself, or the opportunity to use it for a length of time? If the latter, what would be the most profitable “market segment” (group of people who would be interested in the same type of product for the same type of reasons)? Some might include archaeologists who want to publish groundbreaking research, people who love a particular era of history and want to see it with their own eyes, and ultra-rich individuals who want to time travel because it’s new and different and exclusive. The easiest group to target, and the one that these students chose, is the last one.
But how would you contact these ultra-rich individuals? If you were marketing to people who love history but were middle class, you could advertise in travel magazines and on the History Channel on TV. If you were marketing to archaeologists, you would contact the universities with the best archaeology programs in the world and invite them to submit proposals for what research they would do, and the top proposals would be granted permission to use the time machine (for a sizable fee, of course). But wealthy individuals don’t respond to TV ads or typical magazines, and they don’t all belong to a single organization with a governing body that disseminates information.
Most likely, then, you’d need to pursue a public relations and personal selling strategy: make the news, then follow up one-on-one with interested parties (or their event planners or personal assistants). For instance, you might reach out to the agent of a celebrity who has portrayed a famous historical figure or an archaeologist (e.g. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones), offer him/her a free trip through the time machine to see something that pertains to the role they played, and then have them give an interview regarding their experience to a major newspaper. Once you’ve made a splash in the headlines, and included in the news story that this new “exclusive” product/service is available for those “discerning” individuals who have the means and the interest to go on a trip that is beyond the reach of most of mankind, you should start getting sales pretty rapidly.
Of course, this whole process made me want to sit down and actually write a story where this occurred. So often, time machines in fiction are made either by brilliant scientists who have little business sense and just want to see if they can do it (“What will the future be like? Let’s find out!”) or by driven individuals who want to visit a particular time/person in the past (“My true love died; I’m going to invent a time machine so I can be with him/her again!”). Why not write a story about a businessman who is interested in time travel (who isn’t?), but who cares even more about giving the world what they want – and enhancing his (and his employees’) wealth position in the process? This person would be a protagonist, not a “greedy industrialist” stereotype, and the story’s main plot wouldn’t revolve so much around “will the machine work and what happens if it breaks?” but “how will this machine’s existence shape the world of the protagonist?” and “how can the protagonist best use this device to change the world?”
It would change the world of the protagonist, to be sure. Once the machine’s safety was established, the world would most likely embrace the new reality and the company would be the leading authority on any issue of historical importance. (What REALLY happened? Book a tour with our company and see for yourself!) On the other hand, a CEO would also certainly have time machine detractors and individuals who wanted to abuse the system. People who are concerned about public safety (what happens if someone brings back the Black Death?) or about ethics and morality (if you create an alternate universe every time the machine is used, do you then destroy a world full of sentient beings every time the machine is turned off?) would likely protest and attempt to get laws passed to shut the machine down. Individuals without a promising future might want to go to the past and stay there. How would your company handle individuals who refuse to come back? If the company turns off the machine with a person from our world inside, is the individual simply stuck in an alternate reality forever, or do they die as the alternate universe is destroyed? These are sticky issues that a CEO would have to deal with.
The marketing plan that I graded didn’t answer any of these questions. I didn’t expect it to. As a novelist, however, I had a fantastic time raising these questions to my students, and encouraging them to think about how they would implement real marketing issues in an “out there” scenario like this one. And who knows? Maybe someday the scenario will actually be real – at least in a novel or set of short stories.
What do you think, readers? If someone actually invented a time machine like this, how would it change the world? How would you expect it to be marketed?