Professor of English, Carnegie Mellon University
Perhaps you have seen this television advertisement? A plump, mousy woman in a khaki skirt, a yellow top and an emerald green sweater jumps up on her desk. She addresses her co-workers, using her telephone as a megaphone: “Can I have your attention? I have 47 vacation days. That’s insane.”
She looks around earnestly, and one of her co-workers, an African American woman, glances up uncomfortably, as the office “Norma Rae” continues on her soapbox: “I have been saving them and earning them for what. To be a bridesmaid? We come in day after day. That ends now. Let’s take back our summer. Who is with me?” She scribbles “Vacation Now” on a piece of paper and holds it up for all to see. A lone man claps for her, nervously, and a white male co-worker, who has been watching the scene from his private office, lowers his window shade. The thirty-second advertisement is over, and the sponsor flashes on the screen: “Only Las Vegas. VisitLasVegas.Com.”
This ad is one of many right now, from various companies, that encourage workers to do a number of “radical” things, like use their vacation days or take a lunch break. In a television advertisement for McDonalds, one worker stands up defiantly and announces she is going to lunch. A female co-worker warns her, “Those days are gone now.” But an Asian American co-worker stands up and pulls off his employee badge. “I’m going with you. I don’t want to be chicken. I want to eat it.” An Applebee’s campaign features an inflatable decoy to make it look like you are sitting at your desk so you can sneak out to lunch.
These ads have received much attention. The New York Times devoted an article to them, and bloggers have been weighing in as well. Most agree that the advertisements are a cynical ploy to tap into worker frustration in order to sell the worst kind of corporate fare—McDonalds, Vegas hotel chains, Applebee’s, and Gold Peak Tea (which is offering a competition for $100,000 for “one year off” from your job).
Of course, cynical manipulation is the business of advertising, and these ads are particularly good at it. The VisitLasVegas.Com series presents a cast of white-collar workers who are trapped in cubicles, chafing under the tyranny of the trilling ring of the office phone or the constant ping of the email. One employee, when awarded a certificate for never having taken his vacation days, throws a monster fit, kicking over plants and ripping up his prize. Another employee who can’t stand his job executes a dramatic getaway—using a grappling hook to rappel through the ceiling tiles. The ads are quite funny, and they pound away at a singular theme: your job sucks, and you must find a way to get to Las Vegas.
It is easy to see these ads as an attempt by corporations to turn employee dissatisfaction—up sharply since the recession—into profit. As Harry Katz, dean of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations argues, “It’s an effort by management to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street spirit and redirect it to promote its product.”
On the other hand, as I argued in my first book, Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, there is always the teensy weensy possibility that ads like these might get people thinking about doing something truly radical. Isn’t it possible that in playing on consumers’ sense of being beaten down by their jobs, these ads have to ignite a modicum of resentment against the system?
Perhaps a more persuasive argument is that these ads work like a cultural trap door. As much as they might seem to re-direct worker dissatisfaction—they also do much to reveal it. And hiding behind the humor in these advertisements are some surprising truths about the 2012 American worker.
1) We don’t take lunch breaks. 65% of American workers eat at their desks, according to a recent study by a company called Right Management. Within the corporate world there are two schools of thought on this issue. One group, represented by a company called the Energy Project, argues that workers are more productive when they take a real lunch break. According to their website, Energy Project has helped companies like Google keep their workers from burning out. At the other end is a corporate treatment like that reflected by a recently settled lawsuit, , involving a woman who was fired by Target for taking her lunch break late three times over 18 months—once by two minutes. She won $275,000 in damages.
2) We don’t use our vacation days. Right Management found that the average American worker leaves 11 unused vacation days by year’s end. Why is this? The survey revealed that workers are afraid of getting fired. John de Graaf, director of the organization Take Back Your Time, wonders why the US is so different from other Western countries. “This is the only wealthy country in the world that does not guarantee any paid vacation time,” de Graaf said. “Every other country understands that this makes people healthier and creates a better workforce.”
3) We don’t (or can’t) call in sick. Only one third of the lowest paid 25% of working Americans get compensated if they have to stay home sick. Even in the private sector, only 60% of American workers have paid sick leave. Who has the best sick leave policies? Most unionized workers, and, especially, unionized government workers—like teachers, cops and firemen—whose pay, benefits, and right to belong to unions have been especially under attack in the last year.
4) We get fired for whatever. If you work for Chick-fil-A, you might be fired if you don’t attend your boss’s weekly prayer breakfast, even after you donated a kidney to your boss. And here’s another great list of things you could be fired for, including shaving your head, wearing a Packers’ tie in Chicago, and tweeting a joke from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. You can keep up with these and other outrages at Corey Robin’s blog.
When I watch these ads, I am compelled to think more deeply, and depressingly, about the current state of the American worker. I am personally shielded from many of these outrages, as a tenured professor at a prestigious university. But I will confess that I do often work on vacation. I am writing this post a few hundred feet from a wild rocky beach on the Pacific Coast. But before I run off to play with my kids, let me close by wishing you the best possible summer vacation, or just any vacation, during these dark times for American workers.
Kathy Newman was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s. She is finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.
This is republished from the Working-Class Perspectives blog of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.