The feel-good TV show hiding corporate reality
The average executive salary is 100 times more than the average worker’s—and widening—according to ACTU figures. We’re told that bank CEOs’ loot-bags are bulging with the run-off from excess rate rises and capricious ATM fees.
But like so many social issues, the real battleground may be taking place outside of the political and news-based arena. It’s the mainstream popular media where opinions can be shaped and slippery messages fed to the young and the passive.
Ten’s “Undercover Boss Australia”—recently renewed for a second season—is a prime example of cynical corporate interests being delivered as “entertainment”. And yet it gets a free pass in the cultural debate over workers’ conditions, pay rates and CEO salary obscenity. In an environment where popular media isn’t considered to be worth serious discussion, we’re just expected to lap it up, not to talk about it.
This is why it’s still immensely important that media—of the most mainstream and mindless variety—can’t be allowed to be left unquestioned and unexamined by those who consume it, whether it’s kids in school or society at large.
“Undercover Boss Australia”‘s “heartwarming reality” shows CEOs of large corporations don store uniforms and go slumming undercover among their lowliest workers. Oh, what laughs they share and tears they shed. And then, when all is revealed, these loyal minions are rewarded with gifts showered from above and the warm glow of corporate appreciation.
As they receive their final moments of glory, their smiling faces shoved not only into extreme close-up but slow-motion as well, subtitles inform us of the wonderful future that awaits them as loyal workers of the corporate machine (for one particularly “endearing” worker on the US version, we were proudly informed that he “continues to live the American Dream”).
As well as simple propaganda, it’s also drawing on a deeper resonance, which is disturbing in its religious and monarchistic foundations: that of the god or king walking among men, testing their virtue, and meting out reward and punishment.
Myth and literature are full of examples, from “The Odyssey” to “Lord of the Rings”. In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, gods Zeus and Hermes put on some hobo-chic clothes and go looking for a place to sleep. Nobody lets them in except for Baucis and Philemon, who are then treated like real super-nice for the rest of eternity (meanwhile, everyone else gets killed horribly, or whatever).
It’s something of a poetic panopticon: at any moment you might be “entertaining angels unawares”. That may not seem like such a bad thing—treating everyone as though they were the most important person around could make for a pretty nice worldview—but I’m reminded somewhat of Kurt Vonnegut’s summary of the Bible’s crucifixion story: far from being a message of “whatever you do to the least among you, you do to me”, Vonnegut saw it as a message of: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected”.
It’s also problematic when it establishes and normalises a natural hierarchy of lesser beings and the really important people who walk among them. Rewards and punishments flow solely from the perspective of the boardrooms, and the real focus, even in those demeaning rewards ceremonies, is on the boss’ display of generosity and glorious return to god-like form.
Whatever the bosses learn is quickly spun into corporate narrative: disruptive elements, we’re told, come in the form of misguided local managers or ungrateful employees. There’s always someone to take the fall for the boardroom. In one US episode, the CEO of degrading T&A franchise “Hooters” was apparently stunned that women were being treated less-than-respectfully by one franchise manager; the manager was offered up as a scapegoat, allowing “Hooters” to maintain its nonsense rhetoric of being all-inclusive and family-friendly.
While bosses walking as gods among mortals carry enormous power-reserves, the employees have a lot to lose with a camera sticking in their faces. Meanwhile, the bosses have a lot to gain by establishing their organisations as caring, nurturing and important elements of social stability.
Nothing in the show seriously deals with workplace issues or the roles of the minimum-wage workers that keep many of these organisations afloat. I wonder how many corporate workers will feel that this adequately represents their experiences: I wonder how many will have this kind of platform to safely voice their opinions at all. The “day in the life” approach misses the point that most workers aren’t there just for a day-in-their-lives.
We’re often told that the new generation of “kids” is selfish, lacks loyalty, and expects special treatment. That probably just shows that they’ve been paying attention to the way business runs. The savvy ones will realise that the loyalty and honesty they’re willing to show won’t necessarily get them anywhere, and it’s odd to see a generation criticised for lacking loyalty with casual employment perpetually on the increase.
So much for the fantasy of telling the boss to “take this job and shove it” (in the words of the David Allen Coe song). “Undercover Boss Australia” asks us to fantasise about receiving crumbs from the table.
If nothing else, all of this is a perfect reason why we need a culture of serious media analysis and education in schools and broader society.
All we end up with on a show like “Undercover Boss” is corporate advertising disguised as entertainment, and a cultural normalisation of short-term high-speed nepotism.
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