New Internationalist

How much of your soul does the minimum wage buy?

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A short reprieve from manipulative ads. Brandalism.org.uk under a Creative Commons Licence

Outside the cafe where I’m writing this, there’s a woman in a fleece top that says: ‘I’m a Happy Tosser’. And if you’re worried I’m about to launch into a piece on the perils of crap t-shirt slogans, think again. It’s her work uniform. She delivers salads to offices.

You don’t need a degree in sociology to know this item of clothing makes the wearer a walking asshole-magnet. It might as well say ‘Harass me now!’.

The idea of branding employees in a sexual way is not even new. There’s a chain of spicy chicken shops in Britain where the female employees wear shirts that say ‘Hot chick’. I don’t remember what the guys wear, but presumably at some point they’ll be issued with uniforms that read ‘Why not taste my spicy cock?' *

Many of these people are going to be earning the minimum wage, probably on zero-hour contracts. In the current climate they may even have taken these jobs on the threat of losing their benefits and not being able to feed themselves and their families.

I’m totally OK with service-industry employees being given smart uniforms. It helps me figure out who actually works for Virgin Trains so I can pick up yet another complaint form. But it seems like the ‘Happy Tossers’ crosses a line in terms of how much of our mortal soul or personal dignity these companies are entitled to. I’m not entirely sure where the line should be or what we can do it fix it.

A long time ago, corporations discovered the best way to sell us things is to pretend to be our friend. ‘By appointment to her majesty Queen Victoria’ was replaced as the go-to marketing slogan with: ‘Alright mate, wanna buy a watch?’ and ‘Hey sexy-pants, you’d look hot in a four-wheel drive hatchback’.

Many corporations seem to want to go one further than a friendly advertising tone – they want to force their employees to actually be our friends.

Facts in advertising have been replaced with aspirational images – acne-free couples running along dog-poo-free beaches – and jokes. Not funny jokes, just lies presented as a joke so the advertising watchdogs can’t complain. Probably the best lager in the world? Fuck off. The best a man can get? No, it’s a razor. And if I’m ‘worth it’ why can’t I just steal it?

In the process we get boring gender stereotypes forced down our throats. Women get their self-worth from their appearance. Men like beer. And sports. And women that look like ‘Hooters girls’.

Hooters. This is where we are headed. Hooters. This noxious US phenomenon has now landed in Britain, where employees don’t just have to pretend to be your friend, they have to pretend to be your girlfriend. And they can’t even dump you.

Sometimes poorly paid employees are even expected to recommend the crappy products they sell. I’ve seen it in bookshops, wine shops, restaurants, even toiletry shops. Little handwritten shelf or table cards that announce ‘Andy recommends...’.

Lots of my comedian friends have done adverts. In a tough business and a recession, with venues charging astronomical hire rates, promoters insisting on try-out sets before you can apply for paid work and audiences increasingly reluctant to fork out top whack or take a risk, I find it hard to judge. Or even to say I never would.

But I have a line; there are things I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t appear in an advert saying ‘I’m Kate Smurthwaite and I recommend this’. Not unless I really, truly, meant it. And if I meant it, I’d give my fee to charity to make that point clear. There’s a difference between acting the role of a farmer growing corn to make a Happy Sandwich and looking straight to camera and saying ‘I [real name] personally think you should buy this sandwich’.

It’s a bare minimum, but it’s a start. If companies want to insist employees make recommendations, they should be allowed to tell the truth. The complete truth.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to go into your local store and see:

‘Nat recommends eating at a restaurant with more than a microwave out the back.’

‘Sam recommends the cheapest wine ’cos it all numbs the monotony the same way’, and

‘Andy recommends overthrowing the runaway capitalist regime so your sons and daughters won’t end up throwing away the best years of their lives in a t-shirt with a sleazy slogan and a soul-destroying shit-hole dead end job like this’?

* There’s a good chance this time next week the New Internationalist editorial team will be analysing what brought recent traffic to their site and notice that 98 per cent were people googling the phrase ‘taste my spicy cock’.

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