If you learned everything you know about what it’s like to work in Amazon warehouses from the company’s new three-part series of advertisements, you’d think they rival Disneyland as “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
The campaign, developed by Peter Berg’s production company Film 45, introduces us to mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends, military vets, and others, all getting the work done at Amazon that gets that book, pair of shoes, or toilet paper to your front door, pronto.
“What it takes to work at Amazon: Number one is safety, and a sense of family, says Jenna. “We feel like a family together.”
“There’s a lot of camaraderie here at Amazon,” says Harrison. “It’s very similar to when I was in the military, especially with the amount of veterans that are here.”
“With COVID, my husband lost his job,” says Melanie. “Second week of August I started working here. My husband applied and he started working here, and it’s actually helped bring our family closer.”
Workers are dancing in the aisles! They may be wearing masks (for safety!), but their smiles can’t be dimmed!
Even Walt Disney himself would likely find this display of kumbaya to be a bit over the top. (And even his company forced employees to get magical in a pandemic.)
On the surface, Amazon’s intentions are obvious: Celebrating essential workers—the folks in the warehouses rather than the executives Zooming in from their kitchens—has become a bit of a well-played trope in 2020’s COVID-19-influenced advertising, a chance for companies to echo the cheers of customers who made signs thanking delivery drivers for bringing them goods when they needed them most.
The ads are also rather blatant recruitment videos. In the last 10 months, Amazon has added more than 427,000 new workers around the world—an average of 1,400 new workers per day—to bring its employee count up to more than 1.2 million. That’s a 50% boost over last year, and a historic level for any company when it comes to adding head count. Much of this push is to meet the demand of a 38% increase in Amazon’s direct e-commerce revenue last quarter, while third-party seller services skyrocketed 55%.
While some viewers may fall under the spell of this all-out warm ‘n’ fuzzy, feel-good extravaganza, the ads are also designed to obscure what Amazon doesn’t want customers—the constituency CEO Jeff Bezos is most obsessed with—to hear, and that’s the increasing drumbeat of bad news relating to employee conditions at Amazon warehouses and the employee organizing designed to change it.
This Amazon campaign is the latest in what is increasingly becoming the tech industry’s playbook for coddling its customers while papering over its immiseration of its frontline workers.
Call it Big Tech’s happy place.
What Amazon doesn’t want you to know
It hasn’t just been Amazon’s stock price, sales, and head count on a steady climb this year, but also increased scrutiny and criticism, both internally and externally, of how the company works and treats its employees.
Amazon’s message counters what we’ve heard from other Amazon employees, like Courtenay Brown, who works in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, and, along with colleague Jordan Flowers, was the subject of a New York Times op-ed video calling for Amazon to put in more protections for workers and reinstitute things like paid time off (discontinued in May) and pandemic hazard pay (discontinued in June). “We don’t need your thank-you commercials,” Brown said. “We need better protections and to be paid what we deserve.”
The company has been criticized for firing workers who spoke out or protested about paid time off and workplace safety, which in some cases have violated labor laws. In April, workers at a Michigan warehouse walked off the job in protest, demanding 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 to work at 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 civil rights law by both terminating his employment and putting other minority workers at risk during the pandemic. Meanwhile, in Alabama, the National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a hearing on Amazon warehouse employees in that state’s bid to hold an election to unionize for better pay and more work protections.
In that sense, these Amazon ads are not targeting workers at all, because current and even prospective employees almost certainly know how demanding (and demeaning) warehouse work can be. Dania Rajendra, the director of Athena, a broad coalition of activist, pro-labor, and social-justice groups working to reform and possibly break up Amazon, sees these ads aimed not only at potential workers, but also, and perhaps more important, government legislators—and you.
“I also think this is aimed at consumers, the mostly affluent, urban-dwelling, predominantly white customers,” says Rajendra, “and reassuring them that Amazon isn’t actually a brutal place to work, where people have compared it to worse than prison labor and are at extreme risk of catching COVID.”
Requests for comment to representatives of Film 45 were not answered as of press time. Amazon said, in a statement, “For years we’ve had associates in campaigns – just check out our blog and search for ‘associates’ or look at some of our team’s social posts over the last several years. It’s also not an uncommon practice for companies to have stories or videos featuring their employees.”
The “yes on Prop 22” campaign is tech’s ad playbook
In the months leading up to the November election, Californians faced an onslaught of ads and messaging relating to a ballot measure known as Proposition 22, which companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash wanted passed to prevent their delivery workers from being classified as employees. The companies spent some $200 million on pro–Prop 22 propaganda that spanned commercials, billboards, mailers, and even messages within the popular apps themselves seeking to convince voters that making drivers employees, instead of keeping them as independent contractors, would kill these companies and end the convenience they provide for so many.
More important, they argued, the California law that granted these workers the rights of employees ran counter to what the workers themselves wanted, which was flexibility. Just ask them, the companies said, creating a litany of ads featuring hard-working people of color.
The ride-hailing and app-based delivery companies weren’t the only ones getting in this game this year. Back in September, Facebook posted a sweet, short film about how a beloved New York neighborhood restaurant called Coogan’s had to shut down during the pandemic. It was shot by an Oscar-nominated cinematographer and featured a soft emo cover of “I Will Survive” by Swedish artist Lykke Li, custom-made to pluck your heartstrings. Oh, and to remind you of all the wonderful things Facebook has done for small businesses, especially during this pandemic.
Unfortunately, as advocacy group Avaaz reported in August, misleading health content got an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook over the past year. And we had just cleared the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which targeted Facebook’s insistence on, well, profiting from hate on its platform.
So Amazon is not exactly innovating here, but rather following through on what’s proven to be a winning strategy for other tech companies in 2020. “They’re advocating on a number of fronts: electoral politics at every level, workplace organizing, antitrust, and just broader public opinion as sentiment turns against the company,” says Marshall Steinbaum, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah who has written about the gig economy.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of those who appear in Amazon’s new ads. We want to hope they actually like their jobs and that they’ve been well treated. But it’s also impossible to ignore the other voices from within the company, like those of Brown and Mario Crippen.
It’s the difference between the two that speaks volumes.
Athena’s Rajendra says that because these are real issues that can’t be one-clicked away, Amazon is forced to make big-budget ads with Hollywood directors. “Because when people speak up honestly about what it’s like to work there,” she says, “there is a power to telling the truth without the production quality of these ads that [Amazon] cannot buy.”
Disclosure: Fast Company editorial staff is represented by the Writers Guild of America-East.