Dennis Kozlowski

O frabjous day! ZOMG, I WIN TEH INTERNETZ!!!

Have you gotten a flurry of these things as well? Emails of an exuberantly preposterous nature, full of rip-snorters that make you wonder how the authors managed to create such a sublime pastiche of accurate and absurd, plausible and im-?

Apparently, there are LOTS of otherwinners.” And thanks to the many websites that seek to expose internet scams, it’s possible to read several versions of this email. Reading across versions allows several interesting patterns emerge.

Scam Emails as a Literary Genre

On the one hand, it suggests that scam letters can be read as a kind of literary form in their own right—an insight, I’m happy to say, that has been offered by others, notably Scam-O-Rama, which notes that scammers’ missives “smack of political satire, [and] contain elements harking back to 19th century literature.” If you can get past the jarring confusion about the words “Corporation” and “Incorporation” (plus the random plural added to the latter), the authors of the “Google Incorporations” series have a virtually Dickensian flair, from the names they invent for the letters’ authors to their conceits about why and how Google is distributing its  largesse.

Two literary aspects of the letters stood out to me:

  • The names
    Most versions of the letter are putatively authored by someone bearing the title of “Doctor.” Whether this is supposed to connote a medical credential or a doctorate is unclear—that’s part and parcel of the strategic ambiguity employed throughout the letters. The names themselves range from the mundane (“Dr. Frank Smith” or “Dr. Nelson Cole”) to the more memorable (“Dr. Kibbs Richardson”). One particularly flamboyant letter is authored by a certain “Sir Richard Scholes,” purportedly the “Foreign Transfer Manager” for Google. Because of course a British lord would occupy a middle management position at an American high tech company. My personal favorite is “Dr. Paul Zimmaman”—written as if by a person who has never seen “Zimmerman” written out, but has heard the name spoken and just spelled it as it sounded.
  • The vocabulary
    This seems to be one of the defining characteristics of SPAM “literature” in all genres, not just the “Google Incorporations” series. For whatever reason, scammers just love the word “hence.” As in “Hence we do believe with your winning prize, you will continue to be active and patronage to the Google search engine.” So that’s -1 for inability to distinguish between a noun and a verb (“patronage”), but +1 for the “Hence”?Running a close second is the word “therefore,” as in “You have therefore won the entire sum of ?450,000.00 {Four Hundred And Fifty Thousand Great British Pounds Sterling} and also a certificate of prize claims will be sent along side your winning cheque.” A certificate! Making things even more official!

    Making things seem official is the name of the game: for instance, you aren’t just asked how you want to get your money, you have to “select your mode of prize remittance.” Prolixity FTW!

Global Capitalism as Seen from the Periphery

Secondly, the “Google Incorporations” letters can be read from a more sociologically analytical standpoint, for what they tell us about the mental models some people hold of the contemporary global economy. In this sense, the letters can be savored both as unintentional comedy and as commentary on how capitalism is understood in some parts of the world.

The assumptions underlying the “Google Incorporations” series are revealing as accounts that the authors think will be plausible to readers (e.g., potential victims or “marks”). Obviously, the authors know that Google isn’t giving away money, but they’re hoping to create a convincing illusion.

My interest lies here: the pastiche of capitalism that the scammers are producing. What features do they consider indispensible to creating that illusion? The many ways in which they fail to portray corporate activity realistically are glaringly obvious. But I’m interested in what they think is going to fly with readers—at least well enough to get readers to cough up the personal data the scammers are seeking.

  • Spatial indeterminacy
    Google’s geographical location turns out to be one of the things that the scam letters’ authors don’t consider very important to making their appeals convincing. Mimicking a standard business letter, the Google Incorporations “award notification” leads with the firm’s address. But the address is in the UK!
  • Google Incorporations.
    Stamford New Road,
    Altrincham Cheshire,
    WA14 1EP
    United Kingdom.

    Leaving aside the plausibility problem of situating one of the world’s leading tech firms in the UK rather than the Silicon Valley, the authors apparently don’t have a very good grip on English geography.While there is actually a Stamford New Road in the town of Altrincham, Cheshire, that town is several hundred miles northwest of London.

  • It looks to me as if the authors just randomly added “London” between the postcode and the country name, much as they added the random “s” at the end of the word “Incorporation.” Because dropping the name of the international capital of finance can only help, amirite?

    Call it an excess of creative exuberance. Or the scam equivalent of gilding the lily. The same impulse that made Dennis Kozlowski buy the $15,000 umbrella stand.

    • The prize giveaway: corporations as cargo cults
      Here’s where things really get interesting, in my view.In the world of the “Google Incorporations” authors, corporations are mysterious entities that dispense large chunks of money on a whim. A sum approaching three-quarters of a million US dollars just to “thank” loyal customers? No problemo!

      Adding to the mirth, the give-aways are purported to occur via lottery—a lottery that “winners” never entered in the first place. It makes the corporate world seem like a kind of modern cargo cult, dumping wealth haphazardly upon the unsuspecting.

      A cargo cult, as Wikipedia informs us,

    “is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices. Cult members believe that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.”

    The cargo cult originated in Melanesia, where planes would drop cartons of food and so forth from the sky, much to the surprise of the local population. New beliefs sprung up around this experience, along with new rituals designed to get the mysterious flying objects to come back and dispense more wealth.

    In a way, this is a very sensible interpretation of capitalism: people get rich, seemingly at random. It’s as if money just drops out of the sky onto their heads.

    The premise of the “Google Incorporations” letter—and, I would argue, lotteries in general—can be summed up by the idea “it could happen to you, too!”

    This wistful thought may explain why so many people ignore the obvious signs that these “award notifications” are frauds, and post to scam-exposé websites, asking plaintively whether the offers could possibly be legit. It’s all very reminiscent of Pearl Bailey’s appeal to Santa for a “Five Pound Box of Money:”

    In doing some background reading for my current research project on the global regulation of private wealth, I was struck by this observation about corporations from anthropologists George Marcus and Peter Dobkin Hall:

    “…the internalized functions characteristic of modern, bureaucratically organized business firms has been less a means of responding to market forces than a means of eliminating them. While remaining nominally in the economic realm, corporations have increasingly become (and may, indeed, always have been) mechanisms for the maximization of social and political utilities: identity, status, power, influence.”

    —from Lives in Trust: The Fortunes of Dynastic Families in Late Twentieth-Century America (1992: 257;  emphasis mine)

    My first reaction upon reading this was: “Preach it!” The phrase that really grabbed my attention was: “and may, indeed, always have been.” As in, maybe corporations have always been about enhancing the personal attributes—“identity, status, power and influence”—of corporate executives.

    I’ve been waiting for someone to say that in print for a long time. To say that the rhetoric used to justify the existence and behavior of corporations, expressed in set phrases like “adding shareholder value,” is about as convincing as the praise of the court officials in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

    The Emperor's New Clothes.

    Whenever some executive piously intones these set phrases, it makes him (and it is usually a him) sound like an altruist who somehow got lost en route to the local Peace Corps office and wound up in the C-suite instead: “Oh well, now I’ll have to accept a multi-million-dollar salary and a private jet instead of teaching apiculture in Zambia. Fiddlesticks!” It’s ludicrous, and yet rarely does anyone in social science speak up against this farcical claim that people run companies in order to make other people—specifically, shareholders—rich.

    My second reaction was to think of Dennis Kozlowski—the CEO of Tyco, who used his firm’s money to pay for his wife’s birthday party (with the infamous vodka-peeing ice sculpture), along with a $6,000 shower curtain, $15,000 dog-shaped umbrella stand, and other accoutrements of conspicuous consumption.

    Partying like it's 199. On Tyco's nickel.

    Before he went to prison for what the Wall Street Journal (!) termed “looting Tyco of some $600 million,” Kozlowski sure had a lot to say about shareholder value.When rumors started to spread in early 2002 about his misuse of company funds, he had Tyco’s PR department issue a press release stating:

    “We are holding this meeting to respond to the continuing stream of baseless rumors that are depressing our stock, and to discuss ways in which we plan to enhance shareholder and debt-holder value.”

    Memo to haters: Dennis Kozlowski Wants to Make You Rich.

    Amazingly, that was the actual title of an article published by Smart Money magazine 9 months before the SEC filed larceny charges against Kozlowski. Such is the power of the executives-as-philanthropists-manqués trope that a reputable financial publication essentially became the propanda arm of a deeply corrupt organization.

    The delusional quality of this reporting calls to mind something that Bourdieu wrote in his autobiography:

    “The grip of strongly integrated groups, the limiting case (and practical model) of which is the standard family, is to a large extent due to the fact that they are linked by a collusio in the illusio, a deep-rooted complicity in the collective fantasy, which provides each of its members with the experience of an exaltation of the ego…an enchanted image of the self.”

    —from Sketch for a Self-Analysis (2008: 7)

    The idea that corporate elites represent a strongly integrated group willing to take coordinated action to preserve their collective interests is nothing new. Marx theorized it in Das Kapital and other writings; Useem investigated the phenomenon empirically in The Inner Circle. But what doesn’t get talked about enough, in my view, is the element of illusion—the fantasy and enchantment that comes with being a corporate executive.

    What’s really puzzling is not the illusion on the part of CEOs, but the collusion from others that supports it. Many journalists play the role of courtiers praising the emperor’s new clothes, but so do academics. Every time university professors use phrases like “creating shareholder value” uncritically, they are colluding in the illusion of benevolent executive power and drawing a veil over the self-serving uses of the corporation by executives. Personally, I’d like to see more of us—particularly in business schools—discuss the possibility that people like Kozlowski aren’t deviants, but individuals who have been caught and punished for what is otherwise accepted practice among their peers.