Corporate advertainment

February 22, 2010

A new reality show that claims to find common ground between corporate executives and workers is really a capitalist fairy tale, says Nicole Colson.

"THIS WILL change the way I work every day."

So promises Joe DePinto, the president and CEO of 7-11, on the most recent episode of CBS's newest hit show, Undercover Boss.

Undercover Boss purports to be a "reality" show, in which high-ranking corporate executives, wearing disguises, are put into the trenches with the ordinary (usually low-wage) workers who keep their companies going. Can the bosses make it through the day hauling trash, busing tables at a busy restaurant, or making pots of coffee?

On the surface, the show might seem cathartic--anyone who toiled at a low-wage job will have wondered if their highly paid corporate overlords could last a single day in their shoes. (CBS is even marketing the show as "an hour of 'feel good.'")

Undercover Boss even got a stamp of approval from the "queen of self-improvement" herself: Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire episode of her talk show to how the process of working alongside regular employees is "transforming" for bosses--and how equally uplifting it is for workers, who get to see that someone really does finally feel their pain.

Waste Management President Larry O'Donnell rides a garbage truck in the CBS series Undercover Boss
Waste Management President Larry O'Donnell rides a garbage truck in the CBS series Undercover Boss

But don't be fooled. The only thing "transformative" about this show is the effect these companies hope to have on their corporate images.

The first episode of the show featured Waste Management President Larry O'Donnell, who went undercover as a new hire named "Randy" and worked a variety of jobs--from the sorting line at a recycling plant to a garbage truck route. Along the way, he witnesses employees forced to sprint to clock back in after their lunch break, because they're docked two minute's pay for every minute they're late (something that is, by the way, illegal).

Another worker, a female garbage truck driver, is forced to go to the bathroom in a can during her shift, in order to finish her run of 300 pickups in 12 to 13 hours (as a manager sits in a pickup truck monitoring her for speed). As she puts it, her job is "not very female-friendly." Still another woman is shown doing the work of four employees for the pay of one--as she struggles to keep from having to sell her (modest) dream house.

In DePinto's case, the 7-11 boss traded in his mansion and "personal putting green" to yawn his way through the early-morning shift at a 7-11 store, and on the road making deliveries. The employees he encounters include Dolores, a woman who is on dialysis and waiting for a kidney transplant, but who manages to sell 2,500 cups of coffee every day, and Waqas, an immigrant night clerk at a store who aptly describes his job as a "dead end."

Meanwhile, DePinto can't even make a pot of coffee without overflowing the machine, and is shown choking up when stale doughnuts and bagels are dumped in the trash instead of being donated to the homeless.

Then there was the most stomach-turning episode so far, in which Hooters President and CEO Coby Brooks is shocked--just shocked!--to discover a sexist manager forcing female employees at one restaurant to engage in demeaning eating contests in order to be let off from work.

Likewise, Brooks appears clueless when, accompanying Hooters "girls" to hand out free wings to passersby, several women (and men) say they think his restaurant chain is sexist and degrading to women. Go figure.

SO FAR, each episode has followed a familiar pattern. After trying out several different jobs and usually floundering at most of them, the boss reveals himself (there have been no female bosses yet) to employees.

He promises them that he didn't know how hard things really are in the trenches, but he wants to make up for it--with modest promotions for some, promises to get rid of misguided company policies, or asking employees to work on a taskforce to educate management.

"Bad" managers are chastised (but, tellingly, none have been fired so far), and the boss does a public "mea culpa," humbly promising a group of assembled workers at the end that he will institute reforms and strengthen the company "family."

Workers are obviously carefully selected to maximize the drama. Several are undergoing serious family, financial or health problems, yet still manage to soldier on through their jobs with an optimistic view of life. Still others are chosen for their "can-do" spirit or their "America is the land of opportunity" view on life.

By the end of the 7-11 episode, for example, Waqat, who had described his job as a "dead end," is now telling the camera that DePinto "cares about me," because he has offered to be a mentor to him. "Only in America" could a boss care so much, says a delivery driver named Igor--who, we are informed at the end of his show, was given his own 7-11 franchise and "continues to live the American Dream."

Nowhere is there a hint of words like: union, strike or benefits. Instead, the underlying, insidious message of the show is that getting through a shitty job--literally, in the case of Fred G., a worker at Waste Management, whose job is to remove human waste from porta-potties--is all about having a "positive attitude."

AT THE end of the day, the show is, as put it, a "capitalist fairy tale"--a perfect image enhancer for Corporate America in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

As David Goetzl of Media Daily News noted in June, when the show was first screened for insiders to an enthusiastic response, the upside of the show for these corporations is that "[a] company can appear bold; transparent; sensitive; and willing to adapt. A dedicated, diligent workforce can be on display."

The show is essentially "advertainment"--an entire prime-time show that is, as Hamilton Nolan of the media Web site noted, "an hour-long corporate public relations message, broadcast to a far larger audience than the corporation could ever hope to reach itself, courtesy of one of our nation's premiere television networks."

In fact, according to Advertising Age, the companies approached to participate in the show were "given assurance that the show wouldn't damage the brand" by CBS before filming began.

In the case of Waste Management, the show has already paid off. The company recently announced that its fourth quarter profits jumped 45 percent--well above expectations. As Advertising Age noted, "[T]wo days after the episode aired, Mr. O'Donnell said the company had received countless e-mails thanking him for his work, promising never to look at the garbage man the same, and wanting to do business with Waste Management." Not bad for O'Donnell's couple days of "slumming it."

But of course, not all of that increased revenue was a result of the show. Waste Management credited strong "cost cuts" for the increase, including the fact that it held employees' wages "flat" last year--a fact that Undercover Boss never manages to note.

And that's one of the most deceptive things about this show. While it takes pains to humanize bosses like O'Donnell--showing, for example, his developmentally disabled daughter--what it doesn't show are things like the board meetings where some executive, perhaps O'Donnell himself, decided, "Gee, we can increase our profits this year by freezing workers' wages in the worst economic downturn in decades."

Likewise, CBS somehow forgot to comment on Waste Management's viciously anti-union stance. As Mark Breuer of Labor Notes commented:

Although Teamsters represent thousands of workers at Waste Management, that piece of reality didn't make it onto TV. No surprise, since the company has been aggressively trying to break the union for years.

During O'Donnell's watch, the company has been forced to pay an $8 million legal settlement after locking out 500 Oakland garbage truck drivers in 2007...In [a] conference call with investors last year, Waste Management blandly reported that "labor and employee benefits costs improved by $59 million in the quarter...with most of that cost related to the withdrawal from the Teamsters' underfunded Central States Pension Fund."

Really, the only reason to watch a show like Undercover Boss is schadenfreude--getting the satisfaction of seeing the mighty fall. Ultimately, the show can't even deliver that.

Instead of workers with pitchforks screaming "off with his head," CBS decided to give its audience a redemption story in which the prince-turned-pauper-turned-back-into-prince receives a hero's welcome from grateful employees who understand that he's finally seen the light (and they, in turn, get to move one rung up the ladder, but no more than one).

Essentially, this is "tourism" of the worst sort--only instead of visiting other countries, these executives get to visit, and then escape, what it means to be working class in America.

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