Undercover Boss, the most reprehensible propaganda on TV
February 5, 2020 8:55 AM   Subscribe

It’s a shameless endorsement of capitalist inequality that may as well end each episode by reminding everyday Americans that they should shut up and be grateful their lives are controlled by such selfless exemplars of virtue. It’s class warfare in everything but name.

Large cash rewards have become the Undercover Boss go-to method of creating cathartic endings. Some of these hard-luck but noble-minded souls receive somewhere between ten and twenty-five thousand dollars to pursue their dreams, get Lasik eye surgery, and so on. Rather than, say, an across-the-board wage increase, or some other systemic improvement of her employees’ lives, Bellah (with the help of CBS) limits her beneficence to these isolated individuals. And the show repeatedly drives home the capitalist ideology it’s selling, in the most primal form: “It really puts things into perspective,” Bellah intones, “that if you try, you can do anything you want to do.” In other words, the system isn’t unfair. If you’re not achieving all your goals, you must be doing something wrong. Work harder. We’ve set up an ideal economic situation, so get out there and make the most of it. Definitely don’t question it.

Previously
posted by Carillon (46 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yep. It's a pretty reprehensible show. It's messaging is only slightly better than "The slaves were happy to have food and shelter." Slightly.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:12 AM on February 5 [21 favorites]


The two Adam Driver SNL sketches as Kylo Ren on Undercover Boss are a pretty good example of this. edit: "This" meaning a total lack of management caring what labor's priorities are
posted by turkeybrain at 9:19 AM on February 5 [31 favorites]


I remember watching an episode where some kind of hospitality industry exec -- cruise ship? resort? -- went undercover. He learned that it's basically impossible for the folks servicing the rooms to make any kind of living wage despite a full day of back-breaking work. The big fix he introduced to help his employees was to change the cotton/poly blend used by the pool attendants to something that could breathe better. I assume this was an early episode because it sounds like they've gotten better at coming up with heartwarming bullshit to end the episode -- the "no wage hikes, but here's a new uniform" bit felt pretty appalling even with the orchestra-swelling, boss-friendly edit.

Anyway, Undercover Boss is like that Fox News anchor who "proved" waterboarding isn't torture by choosing to experience it for a couple of minutes. Or, y'know, Marie Antoinette with her fake peasant playground.
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:31 AM on February 5 [18 favorites]


From the article: At one point Bellah learns she relocated one of her best managers to a different city away from her boyfriend (turned fiancé). Rather than rewarding this model employee by letting her return to the town of her partner, she gifts her with enough money to fly and visit him once a month.

This is really telling, and it gives us a look at what a company's priorities and resources are really like. Clearly, they have enough cash on hand to gift an employee with monthly airplane tickets. Fine. But to solve the employee's actual problem, and re-relocate them back to their former location, would presumably involve some amount of administrative hassle, and this CEO says "eh, skip it, let's just throw money at it." Because she just doesn't feel like doing it.
posted by witchen at 9:46 AM on February 5 [45 favorites]


I watched the episode with Drew Brees (from the New Orleans Saints) a couple of months ago, because I'm a Brees fan. It was nice that the dishwasher in his restaurant got a nice fat check to pay off his student loans, but what about the other dishwashers? It's a lottery - if you are in the right place at the right time the benevolent hand of management with bless you.
posted by COD at 9:55 AM on February 5 [32 favorites]


The Peavey episode is kind of infamous in certain circles of musicians, for showing the moment Peavey shut down their US factories.
posted by ardgedee at 9:59 AM on February 5 [9 favorites]


The show reminds me of those pro-capitalism films put out in the 1950s
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:03 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Fox News anchor who "proved" waterboarding isn't torture by choosing to experience it for a couple of minutes

I believe Hannity promised to never do this but never did.
posted by lewedswiver at 10:07 AM on February 5 [13 favorites]


Yeah, you can't "choose to drown for a couple of minutes". Christopher Hitchens tried it, tapped out in seconds, and was, to his credit, honest enough to confess that it was absolutely torture.
posted by howfar at 10:18 AM on February 5 [39 favorites]


I was way into the show for a hot minute when it first came out, and then realized 1) like said above, it’s a lottery and they’re not really helping 99% of their employees, and 2) most of those babies can’t do the jobs they’re a boss of. They fold so quickly. And rather than learn that their employees usually work their asses off for their benefit, their attitude is ultimately reinforced: I got mine, and isn’t that nice.

At least Matt and Randy were funny.
posted by gc at 10:38 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]


For some reason, I am reminded of Intermittent Reinforcement.
posted by adamrice at 10:41 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


Yeah, Hannity reneged, even after he was offered thousands of dollars to do it.

UCB is a terrible show, but it's not so different from Gordon Ramsey constantly demanding passion from sub-minimum wage restaurant workers.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:21 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


The Street Fight guys have regularly taken on this show.
posted by atoxyl at 11:22 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


the undercover bosses meet one or two fellow employees, usually sterling examples of humanity with sad and/or awe-inspiring backstories that leave you wondering how they can possibly smile so much under such conditions.

tbf, Americans are trained from birth to smile as a reflex, regardless of their situation.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:42 AM on February 5 [18 favorites]


I turned it off and never watched again a decade ago when the Hooters dude didn't break character [Caution: Sexism] and fire on the spot the manager who had the servers participate in humiliating "reindeer games" if they wanted to go home early. I mean it's no surprise the executives and managers at Hooters are terrible people, but still.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:43 AM on February 5 [11 favorites]


Gordon Ramsey constantly demanding passion from sub-minimum wage restaurant workers

Ramsay typically reserves that criticism for the owners, managers and sometimes the head/lead chef (who may or may not be underpaid), who he usually blames for the attitude trickling down to the kitchen and wait-staff. Especially true in more recent productions (Hotel Hell, 24 Hours).

He also is pretty unsparing with owners or managers who try to flout what minimal labor standards exist in the restaurant world, or cut hours to save money, and will berate owners who look to shift the blame for their troubles to the line workers, who he often points out are paid low wages and overworked and still at the mercy of the owners' poor decisions in supporting their families.

Not that he's some kind of worker's champion. It's more the attitude of a guild member who wants others in the trade to adhere to what low standards do exist, so they can be maintained that way.

And while there may be some argument that you need to have some interest and pride in what you're doing in the food world, the same thing can hardly be said of, say, data entry.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:45 AM on February 5 [19 favorites]


I heard an analysis of "A Christmas Carol" by Christopher Kimball of Cook's Journal that neatly summarizes one of the many awful messages of Undercover Boss - rather than pay his workers fair wages, Scrooge buys them a single turkey for Christmas and redeems his previous awful behavior.

You always see Boog-y McBoss sidle up to Karen on the night shift and give her a house and a college education. What about Wanda on the day shift? What if Karen had been covering for Wanda that day and so the loot should have been Wanda's? Does that ever happen?

And, without collective bargaining, this is the world for all of us - a herd of sheep each trying to outrun the slaughter truck when, if we all moved as one, we could turn it over and push it off a cliff.

But we won't because the rich have bought the means of propaganda and convinced us that flags and guns are the only rights that matter, with economic self-determination solely consisting of positioning oneself correctly in the hazy gaze of the right rich patron when they squeeze through the front door looking for Q factor redemption.
posted by lon_star at 11:54 AM on February 5 [67 favorites]


And while there may be some argument that you need to have some interest and pride in what you're doing in the food world, the same thing can hardly be said of, say, data entry.

'The industrial workers cannot fulfill their world-historical mission of emancipating mankind from the yoke of capital and from wars if these workers concern themselves exclusively with their narrow craft, narrow trade interests, and smugly confine themselves to care and concern for improving their own, sometimes tolerable, petty bourgeois conditions. This is exactly what happens in many advanced countries to the “labor aristocracy”.'

Vladimir Lenin, Preliminary Draft Theses on the Agrarian Question for the Second Congress of the Communist International (1920)
posted by Sheydem-tants at 12:24 PM on February 5 [10 favorites]


I'm immediately reminded of warriorqueen's comment last month about Undercover Boss.

This is the American Dream - that anyone in the front line who has struggled for years and not complained will be suddenly knighted. That your cheerful Calvinism will eventually distinguish you.
posted by Mayor West at 12:26 PM on February 5 [34 favorites]


I heard an analysis of "A Christmas Carol" by Christopher Kimball of Cook's Journal that neatly summarizes one of the many awful messages of Undercover Boss - rather than pay his workers fair wages, Scrooge buys them a single turkey for Christmas and redeems his previous awful behavior.

Well, no. At the end of Dickens's tale, Scrooge permanently increases his sole employee's pay, picks up the employee's son's medical expenses, and starts donating massive sums to charity aimed at providing both "necessities" and "comforts" to the poor.

It's not socialism, but it's also not Undercover Boss.
posted by kewb at 12:28 PM on February 5 [45 favorites]


Orwell's Charles Dickens essay discusses the complexities of Dickens' instinct for better rich people rather than no rich people at length.
posted by howfar at 12:33 PM on February 5 [27 favorites]


concern themselves exclusively with their narrow craft, narrow trade interests, and smugly confine themselves to care and concern improving their own, sometimes tolerable, petty bourgeois conditions

Thanks for purposefully ignoring the part where I said Ramsay acts like a guild member invested in the status quo.

And while I enjoy Lenin's thinking in the broad sense, he's a lot better on labor than art. It's not wrong that food workers need to care about the craft at least enough not to make disgusting or actually dangerous food. To say otherwise goes too far in the direction of dehumanizing kitchen workers as Dickensian "hands."
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:37 PM on February 5


On the topic of class warfare, one attitude that I'd really, really like to see squashed is this idea that an employer is doing an employee a favor by employing them. I mean, sure, it's possible for employers to do employees favors in general, but an all-too-common idea I've seen expressed (more often implicitly rather than explicitly) is that the employment itself is a kind of personal favor. Several times I have had to remind people that employment is a business transaction not a favor; an employer hires an employee if they expect the employee to produce more money for the employer than the employer is paying the employee. It's not really much more complicated than that. And yet, some people still treat employment like it's some kind of selfless act of charity and benevolence on the part of the employer.
posted by mhum at 12:40 PM on February 5 [94 favorites]


But to solve the employee's actual problem, and re-relocate them back to their former location, would presumably involve some amount of administrative hassle, and this CEO says "eh, skip it, let's just throw money at it." Because she just doesn't feel like doing it.

I think that what it fundamentally demonstrates is how badly compensated she is for her labour, that it is cheaper to give her a significant payrise than recruit someone locally at her salary.

Capitalism is a fucking con.
posted by howfar at 12:42 PM on February 5 [13 favorites]


I was so naive when I watched the first season of this show, I was waiting every episode for the line managers to get fired or at least chewed out. Did that ever happen? The show acts like all the steps between worker and CEO is just this big nebulous blob of natural law, and not the specific result of specific policies!

Ooo just thinking about this show is getting me fired up.
posted by BeeDo at 12:48 PM on February 5 [12 favorites]


On the topic of class warfare, one attitude that I'd really, really like to see squashed is this idea that an employer is doing an employee a favor by employing them. I mean, sure, it's possible for employers to do employees favors in general, but an all-too-common idea I've seen expressed (more often implicitly rather than explicitly) is that the employment itself is a kind of personal favor.

It's deliberate, companies with cultural power have worked hard to force feed us these notions - we've completely flipped these relationships on their heads. A companies first priority should always be it's own workers. If a business doesn't have that as first priority, it's evil garbage to be dismantled.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:03 PM on February 5 [7 favorites]


My ultimate boss (who I thankfully never met*) was on an episode of Undercoverboss. Hell on wheels working there.

*I think he flew down for a company meeting once to our outpost, so maybe I did meet him after uncautiously asking a very perceptive question during the Q&A about changes that had just been announced (being bought out by a bigger company)
posted by tilde at 2:11 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Oh, "Undercover Boss" is just the American attitude towards generosity and social good writ large.

We're a lot more generous than the Europeans to charity but it's always given in a windfall fashion, at the whim of the moneyed classes, and needs to be received with sycophantic adulation.

Meanwhile, the American working class still suffers from exploitation and the sick, elderly and working classes in Europe are much better off than we are.
posted by Borborygmus at 2:47 PM on February 5 [9 favorites]


Several times I have had to remind people that employment is a business transaction not a favor; an employer hires an employee if they expect the employee to produce more money for the employer than the employer is paying the employee. It's not really much more complicated than that. And yet, some people still treat employment like it's some kind of selfless act of charity and benevolence on the part of the employer.

If anything, it's the opposite. Even if we ignore that we can't quantify all of the things that employees give to their employers beyond just the output of their labor, the state of wages in the US makes it overwhelmingly clear that most workers here are coerced into giving their employers uncompensated labor.
posted by invitapriore at 3:05 PM on February 5 [14 favorites]


And yet, some people still treat employment like it's some kind of selfless act of charity and benevolence on the part of the employer.

I have to think this tendency is accelerated by the fact that most small towns have one major employer. Monopsonies on labor combined with motivated reasoning go to a bad place.
posted by PMdixon at 4:27 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


You see that tendency in the phrase "job creators," which somehow replaced "bosses" and "employers." We can't do anything that would upset the mighty virtuous job creators, you see, or they'll stop blessing us with their benevolence and giving us jobs.

Given the suffering and harm of the recession, I can see where that fear comes from, but it's also totally catastrophic to any effort to regulate just about anything.
posted by zachlipton at 4:38 PM on February 5 [14 favorites]


Which is stupid, because it's the consumers driving demand who are actually the job-creators. Which is to say, mostly someone else's employees.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:52 PM on February 5 [10 favorites]


The heartwarming rewards at the end of this shitty show remind me of the Trump tax cut windfall bonuses that all those companies (Home Depot is the one I remember) oh-so-publicly rewarded their employees with in 2017ish.

I wonder if similar bonuses were paid out in 2018 and 2019? The tax cuts that enabled the bonuses were still in force then, shouldn't the bonuses be paid out as well?

(I also wonder why we don't see a "lease renewal surcharge" on bar tabs alongside the "those ungrateful shits voted to raise the minimum wage" surcharge)
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:59 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Wait; What? Bars actually call out a wage surcharge on your bill?
posted by Mitheral at 6:20 PM on February 5


Bars actually call out a wage surcharge on your bill?

In Washington state, not only do they call it out, it's required by law to state what portion of the surchage goes directly to the employee.
RCW 49.46.160 - Automatic service charges

(1) An employer that imposes an automatic service charge related to food, beverages, entertainment, or porterage provided to a customer must disclose in an itemized receipt and in any menu provided to the customer the percentage of the automatic service charge that is paid or is payable directly to the employee or employees serving the customer.

[...]

(2)(c) "Service charge" means a separately designated amount collected by employers from customers that is for services provided by employees, or is described in such a way that customers might reasonably believe that the amounts are for such services. Service charges include but are not limited to charges designated on receipts as a "service charge," "gratuity," "delivery charge," or "porterage charge." Service charges are in addition to hourly wages paid or payable to the employee or employees serving the customer.
Some places in Seattle put 100% to employees (so it functions as almost a sort of revenue share system with the staff) but others put 0% so it's purely a menu price increase.
posted by mhum at 6:31 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


I have to say that the Undercover Boss Canada episode in which Karen Stintz, then chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, went undercover was a real eye-opener. The TTC, at the time, was undergoing budget cuts and declining service levels. Stintz really does come off as someone who genuinely cares about the employees and her work.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:22 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


be some argument that you need to have some interest and pride in what you're doing in the food world

As a former cook in a high volume restaurant, to have any fighting chance at not going insane, yes, you absolutely have to have a passion, or at the very least, some sort of pride in what you're doing. Outside of the task at hand (making something tasty and appealing, well, over and over, exactly the same), there is so much outsized bullshit, dangerous work conditions, RSIs, stress, poor management, all sorts of things that if you can't summon the effort to make sure that the fries someone orders look sort of nice on the plate, you need to be elsewhere. You're only going to absolutely loathe what you're doing, and you're going to make life miserable for the people who actually care about plating, and who are doing their level best to ignore the shit they have to put up with in order to keep doing the thing they are doing because they love it.

For cooking, you can substitute any number of careers that require love and dedication that are forced to endure utter shittiness to do it: teaching, nursing, the list goes on. Jumping on people dedicated to their work as upholding the shittiness of the bosses is, honestly, another layer of bullshit people with passion for what they do get to deal with. Not a single person in any one of those positions feels like conditions are ideal. Not a single one of them wouldn't want or wouldn't encourage change for the better in working conditions, remuneration, or quality of life.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:09 PM on February 5 [11 favorites]


I'd wanna see the CEO of KFC work for a week solid in a battery farm. Perhaps three months on minimum wage. How about staying on their feet for eight hours after giving birth? How about staying on their feet for eight hours?

You can get a natural tan by working your ass off in the open air every day. Apparently golfing in Florida is insufficient. I suppose if people mistake you for a successful businessman because you play one on Tv, maybe a fake tan is enough to confuse you with a working class hero.

In any case such pantomimes don't impress me much. I wonder who the target audience is supposed to be?

There's an old, bullshit, maxim: never ask someone to do something you wouldn't do yourself. This is literally why we have employees.

Also, this idea of angelic ceos descending like angels to soothe the plight of the lowly ones ... fuck off. Fuck fuckfuckity fuck right off the fuck away right the fuck now and for fucking ever. Guillotine it the fuck off
posted by adept256 at 2:28 AM on February 6 [6 favorites]


Thanks for linking my comment Mayor West. :)

I do think think that Undercover Boss will be an iconic record of the fall of the American Republic that will read like the Oresteia, or Dickens. It's simply epic - unity of theme and time and action, with such a tight structure that is so married to one set of rules.

I rewatched the SNL skit (I haven't had energy for full episodes for a comparison between Canadian and American versions) and so many moments hit me as pitch perfect - the middle manager wanting a muffin, who never appears otherwise, Kylo throwing his lightsaber into the "It has been 00 days since the last safety incident" sign, the "I feel really bad about his son...since I'm the one who killed him" moment which really sums it up, as most of the economic problems the workers have on the show could be resolved with better policies and wages and benefits.

The culture shift I believe has happened in my lifetime also relates to the McKinsey discussion on the blue...the shift in perceiving your workstaff as a drain on your bottom line rather than a) the actual producers of the bottom line, regardless of job title and b) your responsibility and to a large point, the point of the company. The "you" here is corporate.

I skimmed a management book lately that pointed to Reagan's treatment of the Air Traffic Controllers' strike as kind of the defining moment in late-stage capitalism that permitted, culturally, mass layoffs to be perceived as strength and positive, rather than shameful and a failure on the part of executives to grow their businesses responsibly, at the same time as the "lean corporation" started happening. I believe this perception is at the root of a lot of shit, not just straight up bad pay, etc., but bad decisions, because "lean" means everyone is working at capacity all the time, so bad decisions and bad promotions are basically magnified and over time people don't know what "calm" or "ethical" or "not triaging for savings" looks like, and so they essentially can no longer conceptualize work as a supportive, positive place. It's not that there was a golden era of this, I mean, look at, oh, the entirely of labour history and slavery. But there was a point where things might have moved to better and instead moved to worse.

At this point, I consider toxic capitalism the same as toxic masculinity - everyone trapped in a bad paradigm, with rapists and pillagers leading the charge. The paradigm is that VALUE comes from the top of the promotion ladder. It hurts the workers the most, but it also is a mental trap for the executives. A few of the Undercover Boss episodes I've watched over the years have had moments where I felt like the boss really was at a loss to explain to themselves what they were experiencing, but of course being on a reality show as a publicity stunt, it wasn't the moment for them to realize that their company's policies create hardship and sorrow. Like, I think there's one where the CEO cries that his dad (who built the company) is dead, at night in his hotel room, but to me it was obvious that he's crying because the problems he's encountered are so entrenched and he has this mythology that his dad would solve them, somehow. (I may have made this up or amalgamated episodes because I tend to watch this show when I'm tired and upset, but I'm pretty sure there's a truth there.)

I'm really glad for this article because it justifies my ongoing obsession with the narrative of this show. It's funny; I read Ask a Manager, which kind of is a "rah rah, we're all working our best all the time" site (still great!) and then I'll watch Undercover Boss and my stomach will churn, and I still find it a challenge as a manager and supervisor in a small business trying-to-do-things-well to find my own voice in all this, never mind as a worker and a parent.

One thing I'm sure of is that the way the show is presented it really is a drama on a level with a Greek play. In a modern twist, it's comedic for some classes and tragic for others.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:19 AM on February 6 [10 favorites]


Elevator pitch.

Dystopia Undercover Boss - the boss has to work alongside the least paid. If they don't blend in and their cover is blown, the workers get to split their salary and bonus, or vote to let them be boss again. The big vote reveal finale will feature cash cannons, a guillotine and an impromptu soccer match.

Imagine how corporate culture would change.

That other fantasy I had about watching ceos work on their feet after childbirth, I realize now why that wouldn't bother way more than half of them. But that's another post entirely.
posted by adept256 at 10:30 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


I wonder if similar bonuses were paid out in 2018 and 2019? The tax cuts that enabled the bonuses were still in force then, shouldn't the bonuses be paid out as well?

I work for one of those companies. What do you think happened? They laid off a bunch of people.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:04 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]


I have to say that the Undercover Boss Canada episode in which Karen Stintz, then chair of the Toronto Transit Commission , went undercover was a real eye-opener.

Stintz was chair of the TTC because she was a part of city council. She probably got a bump on her councillor's pay for that responsibility but her income wouldn't be that far off what an experienced transit operator would make.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:12 PM on February 6


Dystopia Undercover Boss - the boss has to work alongside the least paid. If they don't blend in and their cover is blown, the workers get to split their salary and bonus, or vote to let them be boss again. The big vote reveal finale will feature cash cannons, a guillotine and an impromptu soccer match.

So, wait... what's the dystopian bit?
posted by howfar at 12:27 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Bars actually call out a wage surcharge on your bill?

here is a link about bar / restaurant cost-of-living surcharges in the Seattle area
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:35 PM on February 7


warriorqueen:
the shift in perceiving your workstaff as a drain on your bottom line rather than a) the actual producers of the bottom line, regardless of job title and b) your responsibility and to a large point, the point of the company.
I swiped this for facebook. Sorry, not sorry.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on February 10


cash cannons, a guillotine

We got the guillotine
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:11 PM on February 17


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