The question of whether advertising is the root of the American desire to always have more is one that is asked frequently, but I often wonder if we are simply asking the wrong question. It is natural for human beings to share ideas and to try to persuade one another of their ideas. From this standpoint, it is hard to criticize advertising especially when we attempt to drive a hard, fast line between persuasion and manipulation. However, I believe there are much more fundamental things at work in our society that are responsible for our increasingly impersonal society, for the degree of pecuniary emulation we see, and for our incessant need to criticize these things we are seeing while seemingly unable to stop participating in it. I believe that attacking pop culture or advertising is simply an abstraction, an attack on the symptoms rather than the causes. So what are the causes? I believe a major cause is the place where most adults spend at least 1/3 of their day, if not more: the workplace.
The Socially Destructive Tendencies Of The Industrial Routine
I used to work in the call center industry. I still remember interviewing for the position more than 10 years ago. As the manager went over my resume, which requested a complete work history, I obliged and mentioned my first full-time job, which was in a machine shop operating a gundrill. “Well, the widgets you’ll be producing here”, said the interviewer, “are insurance claims”, referring to the job I would be doing taking loss reports over the phone and documenting the needed information before sending the report on to the field adjusters for further processing. It was a good analogy. The manufacturing plant itself may no longer be an accurate icon for working class America anymore, but the basic idea is the same. You punch in, you get into your spot on the assembly line, and repeat the same monotonous task over and over again until your shift is over; then you punch out (or in my case, log out) and go home. For most of the years I was there, call handling time was strictly monitored and disciplinary action was taken if your time was over the specified target determined by the bosses. We had a variety of other goals, also punishable offenses if not adhered to, including regular quality assurance reviews by a separate department, lest we cut too many corners attempting to meet our time standards.
These criteria would also determine whether or not we got a raise and we were told explicitly from day one that we were all in competition with one another. As the years went on, our yearly bonus, which was once a profit sharing program, was changed into a bonus contingent upon meeting certain personal goals in addition to the goals of the company as a whole. Any “slow time” during evenings and weekends shrank significantly over my first couple of years as the workforce management department received more call data, which helped them more precisely determine the needed staff for a given time of day. And then there was all the hatred. Many of the local insurance agents despised us; in their eyes, I had taken their one chance to add a personal touch to their business and reduced them to a “mere salesman out to make a buck” in the eyes of their policyholders. The policyholders hated me because I wasn’t “local”; some hated me even more because they assumed I wasn’t even in the United States. The callers also hated us because to them we represented a waste of their time: they had already gone to their agent who pointed them our way, and since we were not the person who was going to handle their file to conclusion, we were simply a nuisance to them, and many of them were sure to make that clear to us in no uncertain terms. Turnover was very high; many people didn’t last two years in this position. They either quit, got promoted if they had a college degree, or were fired. In my particular case, I lasted almost nine years in that position, which allowed me enough time to figure out why some of our procedures were in place: to fudge regulations in order to increase profits. I was never asked to do anything explicitly illegal. I was simply a link in an unethical chain, playing my small part in a corrupt system. When people today ask what line of work I was in, I tell them I used to invoke the “Nuremberg Defense” for a living, because after all, we were all “just following orders”.
One can see from this picture that this is not exactly a recipe for creating pride in what you do. I chuckle when I hear economists cite “loss of pride” as a side-effect of unemployment. Is pride something the average working person has to begin with? The only thing I ever found to potentially be proud of was my longevity and the resulting experience and efficiency handling the company’s software in my later years, but my employer saw fit to fix that: applications we were using were replaced by a web based program which required a strict, linear progression through the claims filing process and selecting check marks and radio buttons rather than typing. A trained monkey could now do my job, forget the fact that less user control over the content of our reports simply made us even more impersonal and more error-prone. We were also told the company had streamlined our Spanish call routing, making only 40% of the Spanish speaking staff necessary. They assured us not to worry, since of course they “don’t do layoffs”. Of course not, why lay people off due to cutbacks when it’s much easier to deny unemployment payments to someone who was fired due to losing the cut-throat competition we were about to be subjected to? I suppose I would have been expected to take pride in the fact that I kept my job while some other poor schmo with a family to take care of lost theirs.
Our pride as Americans does not come from what we do for a living. So where does it come from? In the late 19th Century, Italian journalist Giuseppe Giacosa reported on working conditions in a Chicago meat packing facility. He described how work was dirty, degrading and dehumanizing, how the workers were so covered in animal blood that their clothes and beards had become stiff but then was astonished when he later encountered these workers leaving their workplace all cleaned up and dressed in nice-looking attire. He remarked that these workers were now men that “our own country’s ladies would take as models of sporty elegance.” Giacosa concluded that since in America, workers had jobs that anyone could learn to do in a few hours, job security was non-existent and the worker was considered to be as disposable as a shovel, that Americans only had their material possessions left to take pride in. “The Americans accept the inequality of labor in order to attain a relative equality of goods”, said Giacosa.
Taylorism: Would You Like Some Insult With That Injury?
Being your typical naïve American worker, Frederick Taylor was not a name I had ever heard until a little over a year ago. In his book Principles Of Scientific Management, Taylor portrays employees as lazy people who need to be kept in line by tough management in order to prevent what he calls “soldiering” (i.e. standing around doing nothing). In addition to this, management needs to be made more impersonal by applying the division of labor principle to it. There should be one manager who makes sure you’re doing your job correctly, another to handle your pay and scheduling, another to handle workplace discipline, etc. In addition, I realized the stiff, one-size-fits all methodology utilized for call handling, complete with time standards was also thanks to Taylor. But Taylor was under the belief he was doing workers a favor: his book instructed managers provide incentives (e.g. bonuses) to reward hard work, and to make it seem like the worker has a say in the process by allowing suggestions for improving efficiency. Taylor also called for more rest and shorter working days, which is what the 8hr workday movement had already been demanding for decades; however Taylor’s motivation for this was as a method for squeezing more productivity out of certain kinds of jobs rather than to be more humane for the workers. Taylor also advocated going beyond spot bonuses and making pay increases permanent for “first-class” workers, but warned managers not to “over-pay” a worker because that could lead to laziness. A worker with extra money, he reasoned, might feel inclined to want more leisure time and not show up to work.
I Am Nothing More Than What They’ve Made Of Me
All of this paints a very clear picture to me: the owning class expects workers to take pride in their material possessions, be assimilated into a culture of competition where screwing your co-worker out of a bonus, or perhaps even their job is something to cheer about, and that while you are supposed to provide “good” workers with financial incentives, it is important to encourage workers to spend what they earn so as to not hold on to piles of extra cash and demand more leisure time, or God forbid, retire early without being one of the elite few who “climb the ladder”. Is it any surprise that our culture is characterized by masses of people who trample one another to death at the Wal-mart entrance on Black Friday, that we are drowning in credit card debt trying to “keep up with the Joneses”, that our national savings rate has been in negative territory for a number of years, and that time and time again people believe politicians blaming our national budget problems on “lazy” people receiving social services? We are doing exactly what we have been groomed to do. This is reinforced by many different aspects of society, some of which also overlap with the workplace, such as various forms of bigotry (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) that are used to stratify society as well as commodify the stereotypical roles this stratification creates in order to sell products as is alluded to by Steve Craig in his essay, “Men’s Men and Women’s Women” where numerous examples of the use of stereotypical gender roles to sell products are given. While a detailed examination of bigotry and stereotypes and their relation to our workplace and economic system are beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say that it is an integral part of maintaining a competitive rather than cooperative society that seeks personal fulfillment in material success.
So What Do We Do About It?
The lack of business ethics and the consumer culture are simply symptoms of causes buried deep within our economic system that we all act out to some degree or another outside of the workplace. While a permanent solution is not something that can be given adequate treatment in a brief essay, there are a number of “bandages” that can be applied to at least manage the current situation. For one, I think it is appropriate for us as a society to decide what constitutes manipulation, especially when we are talking about a legal entity like a corporation rather than individual people. For example, in western Europe we see much stricter standards on what you can label a product. Go outside of a range of certain ingredients for a certain type of product, and you must use another name for it. There is practiced here on a very limited basis in the U.S. where we see potato crisps distinguished from potato chips but such labeling is inconsistent and rarely paid attention to here in the U.S. There are also limits as to what a product can claim. Not too long ago I read an article ridiculing the EU for banning a claim made by a company selling bottled water that it treats dehydration. While this may seem excessive to some, it shows that there is a body that is at least somewhat accountable to the public that tries to maintain a balance between allowing potential customers to be aware of a product (which is what advertising should be about) and choose it if they like it, and simply allowing companies that are not accountable to anyone to run roughshod over the public. While this is not an actual solution, it helps. I remember some friends of mine had their son travel to Europe for the summer after he was out of High School. I happened to come over just as he had come back, and what he chose to mention first got my attention: “People are well-groomed and well-dressed, but at the same time, no one really seems to care about fashion, at least not like we do here. It’s hard to explain.” Obviously, you can find anyone anywhere in the world who is materialistic. But this indicates to me that regulation can at least manage the more destructive aspects of consumerism.
Most importantly, working people need to realize that importance of looking out for their long term interests, not just short term, individual interests like winning bonuses. Regulation often has consequences that favor certain capitalists, like eliminating competitors, which over the long term results in even larger firms, exercising even more state power, and distorting prices and scarcities even more. This is why I place much more emphasis on anarcho-syndicalism as a strategy for truly liberating people than attempting to use the state to achieve a free society. Being able to control one’s own work is a value in itself, and it’s a value that I hold. Cooperating with one’s co-workers rather than competing against them could mean bargaining collectively with one’s employer so that every gets adequate pay rather than getting a bonus at the expense of someone else. To change the world, we must change our own mindset first, and to do this, we must stop being so submissive to authority and begin to create and assert our own solutions. I believe this change in mindset is fundamentally at odds with what pop culture and advertising is all about and thus essential to providing the impetus that will move our society in the right direction toward one we care less about material possessions and more about our neighbor.
“A Bio. of America: Industrial Supremacy – Transcript.” Learner.org – Teacher Professional Development. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013. <http://www.learner.org/biographyofamerica/prog14/transcript/index.html>.
Craig, Steve . “Men’s Men And Women’s Women.” Signs of life in the U.S.A: Readings On Popular Culture For Writers. Eds. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 202-213. Print.
“EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration – Telegraph.” Telegraph.co.uk – Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/8897662/EU-bans-claim-that-water-can-prevent-dehydration.html>.
Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles Of Scientific Management. New York: Norton, 1911. Print.