Skip to content

Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

Questioning the integrity of reality television is not exactly cutting-edge behavior.

Characters and contestants are hand-picked by producers based on their potential for lowest common denominator viewing.  We know.  Footage is edited and remastered with music in order to create an inauthentic emotional experience for consumers.  We know.  Reality show “stars” often operate in a way that will bring them the most attention, antithetical to any agreed upon definition of “reality.”

Yup, it’s all true.

But I have a different kind of bone to pick with Undercover Boss, a show that an estimated 4.5 million people* eyeballed last Sunday night.

For the uninitiated: Undercover Boss is a reality series based on a reasonably compelling premise.  A chief executive, playing the role of The Face of an otherwise faceless corporation (and also of The Man), temporarily joins the ranks of some low-level employees in his (yes, his) company.

Each show is a classic fish out of water situation, much to the viewer’s delight.  A covert high-level exec forced to take out the trash!  Watch as he struggles to replace the coffee filter and fiddles with a vacuum cleaner!

The show ends, of course, with a Big Reveal to the employees.

“Rocky McGreenjeans is actually the CEO of the company, not some schlub trying to get a job repairing refrigerators!”

Here he is, with a fancy suit-tie combo as proof!  He’s even wearing a gold watch and sitting behind a desk!  Behold!

“Oh my god!” the starry-eyed female truck driver explodes.

“No way!” cries the humble maintenance man, eyes wide with equal parts surprise and concern.

It’s showtime.

The Man clears his throat and excitedly admits that he learned more from the employees he worked with than he ever could have imagined.  He admires their courage.  He wants them to feel appreciated.  He wants them to know he understands.  He implements one of their suggestions (“Company-wide recycling!”).  He gives them a prize for being so wonderful (“Football tickets for your beautiful boys!”).

The crowd goes wild.

Jeans are worn, empathy is felt, lessons are learned.

End scene.

[cut to commercial]

Everyone is happy.

Everyone, it seems, except for me.

In the end, I consider Undercover Boss to be a great show, but only because I feel that the actual lessons learned are the opposite of what is literally communicated.

All of the deceptive editing, unnatural character selection, and all-eyes-on-me winking behavior by the covert CEO result in a beautiful creation, a delightful unintentional parody where Rich Guy, whose aim is to swoop in and save his lowly grunts from the substandard work that they perform on his behalf, accidentally exposes himself as a hopelessly unaware aristocrat.

If you ignore the delicious subtext, the show is painful to watch.  The disconnect between the well-meaning, aloof CEO and his overburdened employees seems to be a perfect metaphor for what has become of the American worker.  It’s not heartening to learn that CEO’s are shocked to find that American workers — their American workers! — are overworked and underpaid.

Welcome to the new economy.

This is my recommendation for what the show description should read on your TV’s channel guide:

Crocodile tears from CEO’s of enormous corporations as they take a short-term interest in the plight of a handful of underappreciated employees motivated primarily by the positive PR generated.

Lessons from Undercover Boss

$5,000 is a small price to pay for primetime PR

In the last episode of the show that I saw, the CEO of Synagro gave a female employee he had been bowled over by $5,000 for all of her hard work and effort.  $5,000.  In 2006 (five years ago), a different CEO of Synagro took home over $1,000,000 (not counting the 41,000+ shares of stock, of course).  That CEO made about $3,000/day that year.  Things may have changed since 2006, but I tend to doubt the current CEO earns less loot.

Of course, the $5,000 won’t come out of the CEO’s pocket, and yes it is “better than nothing,” but it seems like an oddly small payment for a woman who was misled by the head of her company and used as an unwilling pawn in a nationwide PR campaign.

Leading up to the $5,000 exchange, the company’s lead executive engages on an hour-long journey designed to make his company endearing to the public.  We watch as he tries his darnedest to perform the simplest tasks of his employees.  We learn how empathetic he is towards the common man, how easily — like the politician he turns out to be — he commiserates with the plight of the American worker.  We learn that this company, Synagro, seems like a good place to work and filled with people who care deeply about each other and the environment.

I’d pay $5,000 to the woman who helped convey that message to millions, wouldn’t you?

Corporate executives are as out-of-touch as we assume

I’m sure most of the execs who are the subject of Undercover Boss are genuinely nice people.  But I also think it’s fair to say that these rich guys are adorably ignorant when it comes to what American workers are required to endure on a regular basis.

I know we are supposed to be heartened when a CEO sits down with a low-level employee and is shocked to learn that the employee can’t afford to buy glasses because “vision” isn’t included in the company’s insurance plan, but I’m not.  I know that when an employee explains to his undercover CEO that he misses his family, but has to work long hours in order to pay for his kids to go to college after his wife was laid off, we are supposed to think, “The CEO gets it!  He understands now!”  but I don’t.

What’s remarkable is that these stories aren’t remarkable at all.  This is the economy as designed in whole or in part by these very same titans of industry.  Providing some temporary aid for 3 of 5000 of your employees is an interesting way to completely miss the point.

Sadly, my guess is that a vast majority of the shows viewers miss the point, too.

Workers, not CEO’s, deserve our reverence

I promise not to get into a debate about tax policy, but it’s quite difficult to watch Undercover Boss without at least briefly considering the possibility that a vast majority of the CEO’s fortunes come as a result of underpaid employees doing, you know, “the actual work.”

I don’t mean to diminish the work of brilliant businessmen who develop a company’s vision and spot market inefficiencies, etc., but there is something particularly unnerving about a rich CEO tee-heeing his way through the life of a laborer.

Life should not depend on a lottery ticket

The employees in the show who are recognized as key contributors to the company are truly blessed.  Their good deeds and ideas are caught on camera.  In many cases, after speaking with the unmasked CEO, they, with tears in their eyes, explain how wonderful it feels to finally be appreciated.  Their ideas are implemented.  They get a bonus or other benefits.  Generally speaking, they get a good deal (or at least a deal better than the one they were getting a day earlier).

But this is not how life should work.

We should not rely on nor expect that a benevolent angel will swoop down from the heavens to save us from our common-though-painful circumstances.  The workers portrayed in Undercover Boss, if not filmed for the show, would still be toiling away, unappreciated and underpaid, still unable to see their families, or pay their bills, or afford healthcare, or go to college, etc.

These workers are the lucky ones.

They are the ones who were saved.

What about everyone else?

* For the purposes of television ratings, “people” are defined as “viewers aged 18-49.”

%d bloggers like this: