Democratic Communique 24

Democratic Communique 24, 2011

Media and the Economic Crisis

*POP* Go the Workers in Dell's Advertising: Responding to the Hecessionary Moment ca. 2009

Michelle Rodino-Colocino

The latest economic crisis has stirred anxieties around the gendered division of rate media, economists, and government officials, the recession of the late 2000s appears as a crisis that disproportionately affects US male workers. In such displacement of Keynesian capitalism, more bubbles and crises await. It is important, then, for critical communication scholars to look at how cultural texts distort and how capitalism is being imagined during crisis. This paper explores how promotionaldiscourse for Dell computers constitutes an ephemeral yet important moment in capitalist crisis. These texts speak the organic crisis of neoliberal capitalism through the conjunctural crisis of the “hecessionary” moment.

The latest economic crisis has stirred anxieties around the gendered division of labor. Dubbed the "Great He-cession" and "Mancession," mainstream corporate media, economists and government officials have depicted the Great Recession as a crisis that disproportionately affects US male workers because men's unemployment has outpaced women's (Cauchon 2009; Perry 2008; Salam 2010; Thurmond 2009; Zinczenko 2009). In such discourse anxieties around men’s jobs, especially white white-collar men’s jobs, stand in for concern over the economic security of women, people of color, and new immigrants. Hecessionary discourse claims that men’s unemployment outstrips women’s, and consequently, hurts men financially and emotionally more than it does women, who are better able to negotiate hardship.Other economic indicators, however, suggest the latest downturn may hurt women more than men. For example, although men may have lost more jobs than have women, women’s share of unemployment has grown faster than men’s Mulligan 2009). Women are also more likely than men to file for bankruptcy due to medical costs (Folbre 2009.)

Given neoliberalism’s displacement of Keynesian capitalism, more bubbles, crises, and anxious discourse around white white-collar men await. The Keynesian breaks are off, and decades of deregulation, privatization, and decline in social welfare spending make our economy ever more precarious.[1] It is important, then, for critical communication scholars to look at how cultural texts “speak the crisis” of the latest recession (Hall 1988; Hall and Jacques 1983, 30). If we agree with Schudson (leaving aside his arguments about advertising’s “dubious impact”) that “advertising is capitalism’s way of saying ‘I love you’ to itself’” (Schudson 2009, 239), then marketing texts may provide insight into how capitalism is being imagined and promoted during crisis. Borrowing from Stuart Hall’s discussion of the Right, we might also examine how ads move beyond “reflecting” crises in capitalism to serve as a “response to the crisis” (Hall 1988, 42-43). Ads may be instructive for gauging deeper, “organic” crises while they self-consciously comment on contingent, “conjunctural ones." [2]  

In this paper, I discuss how an ad for Dell computers constitutes an ephemeral yet important moment in capitalist crisis.This commentary is part of a larger series of investigations into how cultural texts speak the crisis of “The Great Recession.”Here I explore how one Dell ad and its making-of “paratext” (Gray 2010) speak the organic crisis of neoliberal capitalism through the conjunctural crisis of the “hecessionary” moment. I conclude by inviting critical communication scholars to put such critique into action. Only critique that informs intervention in the larger organic crisis becomes useful to those who would counter what Hall long ago called "The Great Moving Right Show"(Hall 1979).[3]

How “Treats” Treats Labor

Created by Mother New York, “Treats” promoted Dell’s brightly colored Inspiron laptops on television and the internet in June 2009, around the height of mancession discourse.[4] The 30-second spot features four men wearing hard hats and overalls in a fantastical factory watching a Rube Goldberg-like assembly line produce brightly colored laptops. The quartet lip-sync “Lollipop,” a re-recording of the bouncy hit popularized by the white female quartet, The Chordettes in 1958. A conveyor belt serves pink, blue, yellow, and green blobs to a shiny metal cylindrical robot-like contraption that swats them with tennis racket arms into exploding squares. Transparent tubes catch and drop the squares onto another belt that moves them through another round of shaping, finishing, and branding. The female voiceover conclude“Treat yourself to a Dell Inspiron laptop. With intelligent Intel processors. Dell. Yours is here.” 

What is most striking about the ad is that the quartet does not produce the laptops.The men, instead, lip sync “Lollipop,” sway their bodies and exude reserved happiness as tiny robots roll and faux elephant feet stomp out product.The occasional frame shows one worker holding a clipboard, which he neither writes on nor looks at. Workers appear enamored with the process of turning out laptops, which appear in the last frame as tiny, shiny, cellophane-wrapped candies. But the men did not assemble them. In some ways, the quartet’s racial composition of two men of color (one Asian and one African-American) and two white men (one blonde, one brunette) also connote a rainbow of colors.The quartet functions, therefore, like the bright lollipop-colored laptop shells, as accessories to a productive tool and process, aimed at color-conscious “consumers.” A female voice narrates the story.

By foregrounding nonproductive male labor and pointing to productive female labor (the voiceover) imagined to serve women (color-conscious consumers), “Treats’” responds to hecessionary anxieties. Dell had, after all, significantly scaled down its workforce. By January 2009 Dell had closed its Austin assembly plant and laid off 9,300 workers, exceeding its 2007 plan to cut 8,800 workers (“Dell to Close 2008”; Ellis 2007; Shaddock, 2009). Dell was also embroiled in a class-action lawsuit that alleged the company underpaid 5,000 call center workers (Gaudin 2008; Winget 2010).[5] An ad that imagined no productive labor, in this context, seemed only partly fictive.

Like hecessionary discourse, however, “Treats” registers no reaction to the economic hardships of women, despite Dell’s apparent contributions.Female employees brought three gender-discrimination cases against Dell between October 2008 and January 2011.In the first four human resource executives filed a class action lawsuit against Dell for discriminating against women and workers over 40 in downsizing, promotions, and pay. A second complainant joined the first suit, and in July 2009 Dell settled both for $9.1 million. The third gender discrimination case is still pending (Cainan 2011; Gross 2008; Shah 2009).

The affirming gaze of “Treats’” assembly-line quartet stands in relief to earlier ads that at least partly represent the labor of PC production. Dell’s “Purely You” ads of 2006 depict workers’ assembling computers, directed by customers through call center workers.[6]

 

Asian women, white men, and people of color “build” PCs while the customer chooses specifications. But, like “Treats,” “Purely You” assembly workers seem to exert minimal effort and work with a reserved enthusiasm indicated by barely perceptible smiles they wear while putting processors and graphics cards in place. The labor that built the cards and processors occurs off screen, and in this way, is erased from the pleasant assembly-line spectacle.

Dell further erases the labor that built (manufactured and assembled) component parts in 2007 with “Watch us Work It.” The ad depicts four female models welding, drilling, and screwing together parts of what appears to be a motor for Dell’s powerful, upscale laptop (a red XPS-M13-300). [7] All this while the women lip-sync an original Devo song. Here the models’ labor appears liminal, treading between blue-/white-collar work in ways the “Treats” quartet’composition (two whites, one Asian, and one African-American), like that in “Treats,” adds to the modern aesthetic and decorative work of the models. Over the course of these ads, which appear during early and later phases of the latest economic crisis, dazzling, decorative flourishes further obscure the labor that built Dell’s machines. Perhaps “Treats” homage to Rube Goldberg, whose contraptions are known for making simple transactions complex through machinery, signals both celebration and tempered critique of labor-cutting automation.

"Making 'Treats'"

If we consider the “paratext” (Gray 2010) of the “making-of” video Mother added to preface one “Treats” ad, we may read them as a love story about “creatives” who produce ad content. [8] Because making-of featurettes “provide a window into how Hollywood sees itself” (Sullivan 2007) and illuminate how television studies has viewed “producers” as creative, above-the line workers, Mayer 2011), “Making ‘Treats’” provides an additional porthole into how advertisers view themselves.“Making” shares storyboards, rehearsal, filming, and editing work that emphasizes white-collar labor that produced “Treats.” This white-collar focused narrative, sixty-seconds long, is twice as long as the “feature” spot.“Making” lingers on shots of creative work including the quartet’s rehearsing dance routines, set designers’ discussing sketches, and animation, which gains special emphasis through text that describes it as “a touch of magic.”As Mayer (2011) argues is the case with television production and academic discourse, “Making” romanticizes production processes in ways that privilege white-collar work and minimize blue-collar workers who built sets and props featured in the ad. Additionally, white-collar creative work is featured for twenty seconds,compared to six seconds of blue-collar work (i.e., moving set pieces and soldering).

In addition to white-collar work’s predominating, men outnumber women.Of over fifty people featured, only two women are clearly identifiable in the ad. One woman appears in an opening shot; her back faces the camera as she looks around the room while two white men discuss blueprints.Later, one woman crouches down to wrap miniature prop Inspirons in cellophane.[9]All of this to a Doo Wop song by a male quartet that opens, “I never loved you more than I love you now” and closes “how could I love you any more?” The love song Dell sings, therefore, assumes a male voice and focuses on the labor of white male white-collar workers. It is worth noting, however, that “Making” also erases much human labor: only about fifteen of its sixty seconds depict people’s working.

 

Thus, although “Making” promises to depict “Treats’” creation “from scratch” it barely scratches the surface of global production and supply chains on which Dell and Mother depend. In this way, “Making” is one of many ads that romanticizes and obscures production (Goldman and Papson 1996).“Making,” furthermore, animates commodity fetishism and does so using Vincent Mosco’s (1996) example of computers.“Making” and “Treats” together, as paratexts, elevate Inspirons above impotent workers (visually and figuratively), thereby reducing workers to fans who enjoy spectacles of production.In this spectacle, “It is the computer that appears and not a struggle at the point of production” (Mosco, 143). The ad itself becomes the festishized object in “Making.” Perhaps it is not a stretch, then, to read “Treats” and “Making” as capitalism’s way of saying “I love you” during–or despite–the “he-cession” which renders men’s white-collar labor redundant.

We may also read “Making ‘Treats’” as a response to other conjunctural crises for Dell in ways that highlight hecessionary angst. In the years preceding the ad campaign, Dell faced “its worst crisis in years” (Lawton 2006). The famous “direct from Dell” model of distribution became a liability in 2006, when retail sales of laptops outpaced direct sales (via online and phone orders. Profits plummeted 51% during one quarter in 2006, after the company missed several sales and earnings projections. By August 2006, Dell’s stock had dropped over 60% from its peak closing price in March 2000, fell again through 2011, and as of this writing, is floundering in the teens.[10]To reach late-adopting female consumers Dell began selling its wares through Costco in late 2005 and opened retail kiosks in 2006. By 2007 Dell had contracted with Wal-Mart.

Dell’s changing business strategy necessarily altered its brand, renowned for its lean assembly and distribution systems.Pursuing late-adopting consumers meant building a retail presence and in 2007 painting its “beige boxes” colorful shades like “flamingo pink” (Kessier 2007). Bright Inspiron laptops marked a rebranding effort, Dell’s move from “model-T” grey to female friendly colors (Carr 2005; Kerstetter 2008). Transforming Dell’s laptops from tools of white-collar male professional workers into feminized fashion accessories might have been late in coming in 2009, but it follows the gendered marketing trajectory of other mobile computers (Rodino-Colocino 2006). Perhaps these changes also explain Dell’s moving from highlighting (and romanticizing) assembly and call center workers in “Purely You” to depicting liminal, feminized labor in “Watch Us Work It,” and onto whistling-while-we-watch workmen in “Treats.”

“Making ‘Treats’” responded to additional local crises. In the months preceding the ad’s debut, business media criticized Dell for downsizing its workforce, closing plants, and launching an advertising firm to service the company. Dell spent more on the new ad venture than its thousands of layoffs were forecast to save. Without a successful campaign to show for it, however, Dell abandoned the multi-million dollar ad strategy and contracted Mother to relaunch the brand (again) in 2009 (Dell to Close Plant 2008; McMains 2009; Edwards 2008; Weinstein 2008).Perhaps Mother hoped “Making” would repel flak for taking on Dell.Instead of aiming for the iconic status of Apple’s brand, then, Dell could at least strive for “hip” with Mother’s help (“Is Dell Hip 2007”; Jenkins 2008; Stein 2002). Thus, the “Making” quartet may have been singing about Mother as much as Dell’s laptops when it crooned, “now all my grey skies are filled with rainbows.”

Organic Work

Finally, although “Treats” and “Making ‘Treats’” respond to “conjunctural” aspects of the latest capitalist crisis, it is worth observing that the crisis to which the ads speak is also “organic.”In the 1980s Stuart Hall argued (via Gramsci) that the Left needed to discriminate between “organic” and “conjunctural” crises. We needed to understand how each contributes to political and ideological formations. Hall explains, “If the crisis is deep–‘organic,’–[then efforts to preserve the status quo] cannot be merely defensive. They will be formative–aiming at a new balance of forces” (Hall 1988, 43). Formative responses to organic crises entail “profound restructuring of the state and the ideological discourses which construct the crisis and represent it as it is ‘lived’ in practical reality” (43). Written twenty-three years ago, these words speak today as a dire warning. Hall argued then that the Right had the momentum.They had “the confidence ruthlessly to clear the way for a re-energized world capitalist market which ‘naturally’ speaks the language of the new computer-men”(243).

Communiqué readers know better than to believe new discursive and political formations “emerge” naturally or magically, just as fantastical assembly lines do not deposit laptops into shiny translucent wrappers before serenading workers. It bears repeating, however, that creating new formations requires “political and ideological work” (Hall 1998, 43). The crisis of redundant labor, growing insecurity, and fetishizing pain felt by white-collar male workers are symptoms of an organic problem sold by ads like “Treats” as a conjunctural one. Gender, far more malleable than class, stands in for it in anxious discourse about unemployment. As critical scholars of communication, we should explore promotional texts and paratexts that so distort the depth of the present crisis. But if we are to change the world and not just interpret it, we must contribute to movements that seize the present crisis as an opportunity for organic transformation. There is work in this.

Notes

[1]I am not contesting that capitalism is always already in crisis.

[2]Hall via Gramsci makes this point; Ibid.

[3]I want to thank Chris Smith (2011) for discussing economic “moments of crisis” at a recent panel, Helene Shugart (2009) for theorizing the“metrosexual moment” and Kathleen Kuehn (2009) for her piece in the Communiqué that points to the significance of advertising campaigns in the reproduction of a neoliberal ethos.

[4]The ad still garners comments on YouTube, (accessed June 7, 2011).

[5]The suit was filed in 2007 and granted class-action status in 2008.

[6]See “Purely You,” created by Omnicron Group’s BBDO Atlanta agency. The ad features a father as customer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BxCcDFnwTc ; a mother as customer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddU7H7iVUUk&feature=related ; a college student as customer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nVZ6j1e4_A&NR=1  (accessed May 13, 2011).

[7]Mother created this ad.  Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhtgw-tOj-o (accessed May 13, 2011).

 [8]Johnathan Gray (2010) discusses the significance of media "paratexts" the media including trailers, promos, making-ofs, that "surround" what we in media studies take as "the central" media text. See "Making Treats" here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3uB5mmN-7I&feature=relmfu

[9]I counted the number of people each scene depicts; some people are counted more than once.

[10]See also NASDAQ-­Dell June 6, 2011.

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