Job in the Box

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Like Don Draper in Mad Men who capitalized on the cigarette disaster, a German ad agency has cleverly made hay out of people’s sense of being trapped in their jobs.  Only 13 per cent of German workers felt happy in their jobs in the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).  The Scholz & Friends ad agency in Berlin designed a campaign for its client, the employment agency, that capitalizes on this dissatisfaction.  Life-size images on the sides of vending machines, washing machines, gas pumps, juke boxes and similar public appliances showed people trapped inside the machine, under bad conditions, making it run.  The idea was to evoke gut feelings of “that’s me, trapped in the machine” in commuters on their way to and from work.  The slogan “Life’s too short for the wrong job” on each image pitched the name of the job agency.  The campaign put on the map as a major player in the employment agency scene.  Click here or google “ ads” to see more of the images.

These images are funny and they pack a punch.  They’re almost subversive.  Charlie Chaplin invented the basic visual gag way back in 1936 in Modern Times, with the little tramp caught up in gigantic gears, on the brink of becoming mincemeat.  The idea of the worker trapped by the machine is, of course, a major theme in Karl Marx’s Capital, but it goes way back before him. There’s one echo among many in William Blake’s line about the “dark Satanic mills”  (1804), and the same idea motivated the machine-smashing protests of the Luddites decades earlier.  Sometimes a man was boxed inside the machine quite literally. That was the case of “the Turk,” a supposed chess-playing automaton, that had a small human hidden in it.

Marx famously coined the phrase “fetishism of commodities,” which points to the common tendency to think of the stuff for sale in stores as having come together magically or by immaculate conception.  We don’t see the hands that made them.  We don’t see the people who spent a portion of their lives putting them together and carrying them to us.  We don’t see the conditions under which they worked, we don’t see how little they got paid, how their families suffered, how they dealt with illness, what happened to their children, and all the rest.  If we could see all those things, commodities would come alive in our minds and feelings.  Each object in a store would open up and take us on an Imax tour of the world, speaking in many languages and teaching us many things.

There are TV programs that tease the viewer with a backstage view of commodity production.  How It’s Made and Some Assembly Required are sometimes interesting for insights into the technical aspects.  It’s amazing, for example, to see how old and beat up is the machinery in many U.S. and U.K. factories.  We get occasional glimpses of the hands, even of the entire person of workers who make the stuff, but the whole show is tightly scripted by the factory management and basically amounts to free advertising for the company.  

On a different level is the movie Manufactured Landscapes by photographer Ed Burtynsky.  If you haven’t seen this, do.  Most of it is shot in China, where we see an industrial revolution in progress on a scale that dwarfs its antecedent in Britain during Marx’s time.  In one scene a camera mounted on a rail pans slowly along the side of an enormous Foxconn appliance assembly factory.  You’ve never seen anything like it.  In another scene, women in flip flop sandals climb mountains of scrap metal salvaging aluminum.  Others pound circuit boards with small hammers to recover metal components.  All the waste material came by container from the U.S.  Other scenes are shot in Bangladesh, where barefoot men and boys wading through mud and swimming in pools of dirty oil disassemble giant tankers for scrap steel.  You can have no clue about today’s world economy if you haven’t seen this beautifully captured and produced documentary.

Still, even this excellent film doesn’t give full voice to the people who make stuff.  If I were Minister of Industry, I’d arrange to have a memory chip attached as a tag to every product.  On the chip, which could be played on any number of standard video gadgets, would be the authentic voices of everybody who had a hand in making the thing and bringing it to the point of sale.  It would take a sizeable bit of memory, and some parts would only be hyperlinks, but there would be enough material to allow the buyer to see the true story of how and by whom the thing was made, and under what conditions.  There’d even be email addresses so you could write to the makers and friend them if you wanted to, and in this way the makers could be connected with the end users of their work.

The Scholz and Friends ad agency won major ad industry awards for the human-trapped-in-machine campaign.  It was great for the business of the job agency.  What we don’t know is the extent to which the job agency succeeded in actually freeing people from the jobs they were trapped in, and finding them jobs “outside the box.”  If 87 per cent felt that their jobs were traps, they were probably right, which means that jobs that weren’t traps were few and far between. If they existed, somebody else already had them.  The statistical odds were that the job agency managed, mostly, to transfer people from one oppressive box to another, while collecting a fee.  But that isn’t the ad agency’s problem, is it.

Thanks to my friend Syl S. for calling these clever graphics to my attention.


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