Amazon’s smiling worker ads come straight from Big Tech’s new playbook
If you learned all you know about working in Amazon warehouses from the company’s new three-part promotional series, you’d think they rival Disneyland as “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Developed by Peter Berg’s production company Film 45, the campaign introduces us to mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends, military vets and others who all do the work at Amazon that gets the book, shoes or toilet paper for yours Front door, pronto.
“What it takes to work at Amazon: Safety and a sense of family are number one,” says Jenna. “We feel like family together”
“There’s a lot of camaraderie here at Amazon,” says Harrison. “It’s a lot like my time in the military, especially with the amount of veterans that are here.”
“Due to COVID, my husband lost his job,” says Melanie. “I started working here in the second week of August. My husband applied and he started working here and it actually helped bring our family closer. “
Workers dance in the aisles! They may be wearing masks (for safety!) But their smiles cannot be muted!
Even Walt Disney himself would probably find this portrayal of Kumbaya a bit over the top. (And even his company forced its employees to become magical in a pandemic.)
On the surface, Amazon’s intentions are obvious: The celebration of important workers – the people in the warehouses, not the executives zooming in from their kitchens – has become a well-played trope in COVID-19-influenced advertising in 2020, a chance for businesses to echo the cheers of customers who put up signs to thank deliverers for bringing them goods when they needed it most.
The ads are pretty stark recruiting videos too. In the past 10 months, Amazon hired more than 427,000 new employees worldwide – an average of 1,400 new employees per day – to bring the workforce to more than 1.2 million. That’s an increase of 50% over the previous year and a historic value for any company when it comes to increasing the number of employees. Much of this push is to meet demand for Amazon’s direct ecommerce sales jump 38% last quarter, while third-party services soared 55%.
While some viewers may fall under the spell of this totally warm and fuzzy feel-good extravaganza, the ads are also meant to mask what Amazon doesn’t want customers – constituency CEO Jeff Bezos – to be most obsessed with, and that’s the increasing drumming of bad news regarding employee conditions in Amazon warehouses and the employee organization that aims to change that.
This Amazon campaign is the latest in what is increasingly becoming the tech industry’s playbook to pamper their customers while papering the impoverishment of their frontline workers.
Call it Big Tech’s happy place.
What Amazon doesn’t want to know
Not only have the share price, sales and the number of employees at Amazon increased steadily this year, but also internal and external reviews and criticism of the way the company works and the way it deals with its employees has increased.
Amazon’s news contradicts what we’ve heard from other Amazon employees, like Courtenay Brown, who works at an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey and was the subject of a New York Times video post for Amazon along with her colleague Jordan Flowers for workers and reintroducing things like paid time off (discontinued in May) and pandemic risk (discontinued in June). “We don’t need your thank you commercials,” said Brown. “We need better protection and we have to be paid for what we deserve.”
The company has been criticized for firing workers who spoke out or protested against paid time off and work safety, which in some cases violated labor laws. In April, workers at a Michigan warehouse left in protest and demanded that it be closed for two weeks after colleagues tested positive for COVID-19. That same month, 63-year-old Harry Sentoso died of complications related to COVID-19 just two weeks after starting work in a Los Angeles warehouse.
In November, Christian Smalls filed a class action lawsuit against Amazon in U.S. District Court alleging the company violated federal citizenship law by both terminating his employment and endangering other minority workers during the pandemic. Meanwhile, in Alabama, the National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a hearing with Amazon warehouse workers to hold an election to hold a union for better pay and health and safety.
With that in mind, these Amazon ads are not aimed at workers at all, as current and even potential employees are almost certainly aware of how demanding (and humiliating) warehouse work can be. Dania Rajendra, the director of Athena, a broad coalition of activists, labor organizations and social justice groups campaigning for reform and possibly dissolution of Amazon, is viewing these ads not only for potential workers, but also, and perhaps more importantly : Government legislators – and you.
“I also think this is aimed at consumers, the mostly wealthy, urban, predominantly white customers,” says Rajendra, “and reassuring them that Amazon is actually not a brutal place to work where people compare it to worse ones have prison jobs and are at extreme risk of contracting COVID. “
Questions for comments to representatives of Film 45 had not been answered at the time of going to press. Amazon said in a statement, “We have had campaigners for years – just visit our blog and search for ‘associates’ or check out some of our team’s social posts over the past few years. It is also not uncommon for companies to have stories or videos with their employees. “
The “Yes to Prop 22” campaign is the advertising playbook of technology
In the months leading up to the November election, Californians faced a rush of ads and news related to an election campaign known as Proposition 22 that companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash wanted to adopt to prevent their delivery staff from being classified as employees become . The companies spent around $ 200 million on pro-prop 22 propaganda, which included commercials, posters, mailings, and even messages on the popular apps, trying to convince voters that hiring drivers for employees, rather than them Keeping as an independent contractor would kill these companies and end the convenience they provide for so many.
More importantly, they argued, California law that gave these workers workers’ rights contradicted what the workers themselves wanted, namely flexibility. Just ask them, the companies said, and put together a litany of ads featuring hardworking people of color.
The ride-hailing and app-based delivery companies weren’t the only ones to jump into this game this year. Back in September, Facebook released a cute short film about how a popular New York neighborhood restaurant called Coogan’s had to close during the pandemic. It was shot by an Oscar-nominated cameraman and featured a soft emo cover of “I Will Survive,” by Swedish artist Lykke Li, which was specially made to get your heart beating. Oh, and to remind you of all the wonderful things Facebook has done for small businesses, especially during this pandemic.
As advocacy group Avaaz reported in August, misleading health content received an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook over the past year. And we had just completed the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which aimed to get Facebook to insist on profiting from the hatred on its platform.
Amazon is not exactly innovative here, but rather is pursuing a strategy that has proven to be a success strategy for other technology companies in 2020. “They are advocating on several fronts: electoral politics at all levels, workplace organization, antitrust law, and just broader public opinion when sentiment turns against the company,” said Marshall Steinbaum, assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah, who spoke about the Gig Economy wrote.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of those who appear in Amazon’s new ads. We would like to hope that they actually enjoy their work and that they have been treated well. But the other voices from the company, such as Brown and Mario Crippen, cannot be overlooked either.
It is the difference between the two that speaks volumes.
Athena’s Rajendra says Amazon is forced to do big budget advertising with Hollywood directors because these are real issues that cannot be removed with one click. “Because when people speak honestly about what it’s like to work there,” she says, “it’s a power to tell the truth without compromising the production quality of those ads that [Amazon] can’t buy. “
Disclosure: The Fast Company editorial team is represented by the Writers Guild of America-East.