Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Snake Oil: Get Motivated is a good, old-fashioned Medicine show.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 9:27 AM

Leigh Ann Touhy on the big screen
  • Leigh Ann Touhy on the big screen
“We’re about to drop 20,000 beach balls,” said the young white rapper, a Beastie Boy clone whose name I failed to catch. The lunch break had ended and the second half of the Get Motivated business seminar launched with a dance party and a big giveaway. Whoever danced the best, both freestyle and in accordance with specific moves shouted out over the mic, would soon be taking an all expenses paid trip to Disney World in sunny Orlando, Florida. It didn’t take long for the near-capacity crowd at the FedEx Forum to get wild and loose, pushing up the ceiling, slapping the crap out of their invisible ponies and shouting, “whoo, whoo,” in all the right places. The DJ had the arena throbbing with muscled up covers of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll,” and Van Halen’s “Jump” while tri-colored beach balls descended from the heavens and the rapper chanted, “Stuck in the ‘80’s, stuck in the 80’s, stuck in the 80’s.” Some things defy satire. The Get Motivated business seminar, with its many loving references to the super-awesome Reagan era, is one of them.

I’m sure some of you are now wondering, “What gives? Why are you writing about a Get Motivated business seminar on your performing arts blog?” Well, why wouldn’t I write about a good old fashioned Medicine show where songs are sung, lectures on the moral life delivered, freaks paraded before your very eyes, and miracles performed on the quarter-hour? Only instead of promising cures for baldness or a lack of male vigor at Get Motivated the crowd was encouraged to liberate itself from financial advisers and invest independently. Perhaps with the aid of an inexpensive real estate course or a $39-a-month-website subscription. Celebrity speakers, dwarfed by the vastness of the arena, power-walked onto a wrestling ring-sized stage as music blared, streamers flew, and pyro erupted. Their perfect Pepsodent smiles were blown up larger than life on the jumbotron. 20,000 beach balls fell from the sky. The stories were all about overcoming terminal illness, family tragedy, tragic family, terrorism and mean reporters who make fun of your husband the President because he can’t pronounce the word nuclear. The people on stage at Get Motivated had seen it all. And they were winning.

"If you are having problems, get a Corvette,” General Colin Powell advised to applause.

Now here’s a question. Can a crowd be successfully motivated without heavy doses of fear? One thing’s

President Reagan and John Walsh
  • America's Most Wanted
  • President Reagan and John Walsh
for certain, there’s no up without a down and prophets of doom were strategically placed on the program to balance out the happy talkers. I missed Rudy Guiliani but his workbook bio begins—as one might predict— with the words, “On 9-11...”. The infamous date was also remembered by Laura Bush, and General Colin Powell who shared a folksy story about how, now that he’s just a regular guy buying frankfurters on the street, even he gets prodded by security and sniffed by dogs at the airport.

When I arrived, shortly before the lunch break, FOX TV personality John Walsh was on stage talking frankly about the kidnapping and decapitation of his six year old son. More horrifying than that was the sense of loss and helplessness he described as he watched our justice system fail him. But Walsh didn’t give up. He took his story to the media and ultimately, with the help of FOX owner Rupert Murdoch, he launched America’s Most Wanted, a hit TV show that has brought more than 1000 fugitives to justice and reunited dozens of missing children with their families. Walsh also worked hard to win passage of the Missing Children’s Assistance Bill and he spoke reverently of the day when President Reagan signed that bill into law.

Is the show worth the price of admission? That all depends on what you paid and what you expect to get back. $7.11 gets you into the event and buys the workbook. For $9 and change you can send your whole office, a bargain by anybody’s estimation. A free lunch was even thrown in as a bonus, although I didn’t partake, being entranced by a bonus speaker from Wealth magazine who conducted what was described as a Q&A with the audience, but was really a one-sided conversation where “previously submitted” (and perfectly phrased) questions like, “Does your service really cost $39 a month and will it work on a Mac?” were thoroughly and thoughtfully answered. If the skills you pick up from that service pay for a Corvette to fix your problems, obviously it was totally worth it. If you win the $10,000 door prize, ditto.

Former First Lady Laura Bush’s speech was like a Christmas letter, whimsically catching the crowd up on her family’s post-DC hijinks. Political unrest in East Timor she explained, was no longer an acceptable excuse for her husband the Decider not picking up his own bath towels. Retired South Carolina Coach Lou Holtz won the audience with hilarious anecdote and old fashioned horse sense. But only James Smith truly electrified the crowd with his dire warnings that “America will see the worst inflation!”

“China is depressing its currency...You think it’s going to be okay, but it’s not,” Smith said before complaining about Social “Insecurity,” something he doesn’t think the government needs to fool with. “You’ve got to send [career politicians] home" he grumbled, before offering women in the audience a surefire tip for getting her husband’s undivided attention: “Send yourself flowers without a card every day for 12 weeks in a row.”

Who is this genius James Smith you ask? He’s not a celebrity. Hell, he’s not even listed in the Get Motivated program. But the real estate guru was the easily most dynamic speaker in the second half of the program, displaying all the skills of a midway barker, standup comic a gifted, if unorthodox evangelist. And if you take his inexpensive course on tax liens, maybe he can show you how to love god, get laid, and create a seven figure income all in a single shot.

“I graduated dead last in my class,” Smith bragged, being one of several speakers to riff on his poor academic performance. But unlike Colin Powell, who merely highlighted his less than stellar academic career at New York City College, Smith seemed to have a genuine contempt for formal education. “The smartest people are stupid,” he said to applause. “Now Universities that wouldn’t take me invite me to speak.”

Smith’s real message wasn’t about how making money in real estate was so easy even his youngest kid has a higher net worth than most of his teachers. His message was that sometimes you have to forgive people. Even if a trusted friend breaks into your house while you’re away and wrecks your quarter-million-dollar business you have got to forgive him because if you don’t he might die in a car wreck and you wouldn’t want to have all that unfinished business weighing on your conscience, would you? “Maybe you’re angry at the Market,” he suggested. “Maybe you’re mad at God.”

Get Motivated was a sincerely pious and patriotic event. A Sousa march played over the PA, our servicemen were frequently praised. An optional sermon was conducted just before lunch and the second act included a rousing performance of “God Bless America.” The event was never overtly partisan, but Giuliani, Bush, Powell and Steve Forbes (who I didn’t see) are all high profile Republicans. Terry Bradshaw (who I also did not see) is a Republican. Coach Hotlz, who proudly announced that he learned more in the armed services than he ever did in a college classroom, frequently appears on FOX News with Sean Hannity. He is a Republican and one-time Jesse Helms supporter. The Get Motivated message, by design or otherwise, was broadly aphoristic, long on values, short on details and bent subtly but solidly to the Right.

A free trip to the American Dream
  • A free trip to the American Dream
“When I was working for Reagan things changed,” General Powell said, fondly recalling the bon mots he once exchanged with former Soviet Prime Minister Gorbachev back in the days when America’s enemies were all falling to pieces.

Incidentally, Powell also claimed that he never has to pay for hot dogs he buys on the street in New York. The immigrant vendors all recognize him, thank him, and tell him that America has already paid the price.

So what’s the big takeaway here? Truth be told, I’ve got no idea. And really, why would I? I’m just a stupid college boy and as James Smith might say, I “don’t know jack about donuts.” I do know this though, I didn’t walk out of the seminar with any new skills or esoteric knowledge that will make me a better worker. In fact, I walked out confused, and slightly put out after a speech by Leigh Ann Tuohy, who inspired Sandra Bullock’s character in the film The Blind Side. She spoke about the time her adopted African-American son Michael Oher—now a professional football player— asked his father to fire the manager at a Taco Bell he owned, because she didn’t believe Oher was the owner’s son and refused to comp a meal. “You don’t look like I birthed you,” Tuohy allegedly reminded her son before smiling warmly and asking the racially mixed, but majority white crowd, “Isn’t it wonderful that he thinks he does?” Perhaps a sequel is in order: The Tone Deaf Side.

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