Show Us the Cheese

Lord knows we tried to ignore them. We started to notice them all over--on billboards, on TV commercials, on box tops--and we tried to disregard them. But over time, as they grew and multiplied, we weakened. It became too hard to continue to overlook them, so we took the plunge. We gingerly entered the neat and tidy addresses (no tildes here!) into our browser's location window and what we saw, once the 500k image maps and requisite Shockwave apps loaded, both frightened and captivated us.

We're talking about corporate Web sites, those strange and bizarre creatures that are meant to prove how a company or brand has plugged itself into the information age. Mostly though, they just show how cheesy corporate America is.

Speaking of cheese, we've divided this feature into three parts for easy digestion.

First up is assistant editor Gloria Mitchell's fascinating look at the Fertnel empire and the company's fabled CEO Jon Armstrong. What, you've never heard of Fertnel? For the uninformed, Fertnel is the company responsible for some of the finest snack cheeze and snack cheeze byproducts on the market, including Glow Cheeze, Spray Cheeze, Meat Nickels and Blue-Cheeze-a-Pet, and was one of the first companies to hawk its wares on the Net.

Next, you'll find managing editor Alex Gordon and features editor Sarah Ellerman's exhaustive report on the very worst of corporate Web sites. Ignoring any sites they thought might have intrinsic value (sites for cars, medicine, etc.), Gordon and Ellerman focused on URLs that had been publicized, figuring if corporate honchos were enticing consumers to visit their virtual homes, those sites were fit fodder for flagellation. And after visiting every corporate site on the Web (OK, maybe they missed a few), what they found wasn't pretty: broken links, misspellings, stale pages and yes, the Great Mayo Blaster (talk about cheesy).

Scattered amongst the cheese, our intrepid duo also found a few sites that were actually decent. Yes, somewhere, somehow, some corporate honchos got it right; congratulations. A report on those sites makes up the third part of this feature.

But enough foreshadowing. Let's get on with the feature. It's time to show you the cheese.

Next Time You Think, Think Fertnel

FERTNEL According to the home page at, Fertnel is an international manufacturer of "snack cheeze and snack cheeze byproducts." In a country where spectator sports aren't the same without nachos and no office or dormitory is complete without a vending machine, it stands to reason that Fertnel should hold sway over the lives of millions.

And perhaps, somewhere deep in the psyche of site creator Jon Armstrong, it does. Armstrong started the fictional company in 1984, writing up company news on a Macintosh and illustrating it using MacPaint.

"I sent it to a substantial number of, you know, like, three people," he says, referring to the friends who received occasional word of Fertnel's products and philosophy, perhaps with some oblique references to its many lawsuits. Later, in an "ever-escalating effort" to keep his friends amused, Armstrong opened up official Fertnel headquarters on the Web. "I sat in front of a computer and stared at it and thought, 'Hey, I could steal from myself.'" The new incarnation, an elaborate parody of a corporate Web site, enjoins netizens everywhere to "Think Fertnel!"

Visitors to the site can have a look around a "cozy cheeze processing sub-station" (they simply have to imagine "the fragrant smell of bubbling enzymes" that wafts through it). The "world-famous Fertn-o-Bot Remote Arm Tester (RAT)," which helps ensure that "few, if any, snack scientists are maimed" in product testing, is shown as a QuickTime movie. Then there are the fun facts about such Fertnel- manufactured snacks as Glow Cheeze, Spray Cheeze, Meat Nickels and Blue- Cheeze-a-Pet ("sprinkle on the spores and watch it grow a thick coat of mold!"). Readers can also send in questions about Fertnel products, which Armstrong puts up on the site, along with his answers:

Glow Cheeze makes my intestines all tingly. Is this normal?
"The Legal Team defines 'tingly' as 'satisfied and appropriate,' so yes, it is normal. Our Snack Scientists remind you not to store photographic film next to Glow Cheeze, or, for that matter, hold your camera too close to your gut after you've enjoyed a large hunk of Glow Cheeze. The 'friendly' radiation given off by our snack food will often ruin your snapshots."

I like to eat snacks in the bathtub. Do any of your Fertnel Snacks float?
"Our Diving-Sub Chewy Toy was recalled a year and a half ago after several unfortunate accidents. Most of the children have recovered, we are happy to report. If you like playing with your food, like our Snack Scientists, do try Meat Biplanes. They really fly!"

I've recently been enjoying vast amounts of Fertnel's Glow Cheeze and I am no longer 'regular.' What does your team recommend?
"Please buy a tub of our New Extra Strength Laxo Cheeze, the delicious laxative that's great melted over nachos! Please note, it tends to 'work' seven and one half minutes after ingestion, so be sure to snack near the appropriate facilities."

Armstrong's clearly worked a little harder at amusing his friends than those of us who like to recite the occasional choice bit of Monty Python from memory. In fact, he says he's gotten a good bit of business from companies who've seen Fertnel and his other site, Phos4 (, and want him to do Web design work. "Although," he adds, "most companies say, 'We like this, but don't do this with our stuff.'"

The Fertnel site itself may become a moneymaking venture--the actual product, of course, will be entertainment and not snacks. Armstrong may not have the 16,347 lawyers he attributes to Fertnel, but he has gotten legal advice about the business aspects of a profitable site. "This lawyer I was talking to said, 'You know, you should be doing X, Y and Z,' in terms of some legalese mentioning that it all becomes my property and all that kind of stuff. Because I never did that; I was just, you know, goofing around. I never thought of the legal implications. And I wasn't making any money, I was just doing it for fun."

He plans to add the appropriate jargon to his question submission form once the site finds sponsorship; it'll be in keeping with the lawsuit-paranoid tone of Fertnel (the company's work force, the site says, is more than 73 percent lawyers). And if Armstrong needs a model for his legal jargon, there are plenty of real corporate sites out there that put up similar terms and conditions of use.

For instance, the official site of Olean (, Procter & Gamble's fat- substitute product, tells its visitors that "By transmitting or posting any communication or material to this site you agree that Procter & Gamble or any of its affiliates may use your communication as material for any purpose, including reproduction, transmission, publication, broadcast and posting. Procter & Gamble will not have the ability to respond to messages posted to this site. Furthermore, do not post or transmit any unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic or profane material or any material that could constitute or encourage conduct that would be considered a criminal offense or violate any law."

Of course, Armstrong doesn't actually want to prohibit his visitors from sending in whatever queries they can dream up; he describes some of the questions he gets as "really gross stuff, but kind of fun stuff." And he seems capable of coming up with likely legal disclaimers and pseudoscientific language all on his own--at times, he even seems to anticipate the sorts of things real companies put up on their sites.

For example, he got a message from a reader who'd seen the Olean site and wrote to him to proclaim, "They stole from you, man!" Armstrong adds, "I went and checked it out, and I did see some similarities. They had just as many disgusting questions; it was almost like 'Ask the Snack Scientists.' But I don't know if they looked at mine."

Even fairly tenuous links between reality and parody can rouse the curiosity--and suspicions--of Fertnel visitors. Armstrong remembers another bit of e-mail he received from someone who claimed to work at Frito-Lay. "His first message was like, 'Are you a disgruntled former employee?' And I told him I wasn't. But I wanted to be."

That sneaking desire to wield vast capitalistic power may explain why Armstrong has kept Fertnel going, developing new products and plotting imaginary corporate takeovers ("While Fertnel doesn't yet have plans to divide up the company, sell assets and lay off a slew of workers, we are interested in separating the company into pieces, increasing profits at any expense and replacing humans with machines and primates").

"It's fun to pretend you're an evil corporation," Armstrong admits. "It's kind of therapeutic: pollute, destroy, you know..."

Which is to say, for the fun of wholesale destruction without the threat of legal retribution, think Fertnel.

Bring on more cheese!
The CHEESY Sites!
The Not So CHEESY Sites!


homeback to archives