Before all the sex scandals, remember the “Two Americas” theme of the John Edwards presidential campaign? It was tough to take the guy seriously about working class issues when he was infamous for getting $400 haircuts.
CBS obviously has a recession-boosted hit with “Undercover Boss,” the new reality TV series that lets corporate executives play Blue-Collar Dress-Up at their own companies for a week. Disguised as entry-level workers, the CEOs are shown talking to their minimum wage employees, learning about the challenges of their jobs and building empathy for their pitiful lives eating brown-bag lunches and driving used Honda Civics.
The opening credits show foreclosure signs and laid-off employees carrying their belongings off in a cardboard box.
“The economy is going through tough times. Many hard-working Americans blame wealthy CEOs out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies,” the deep-voiced narrator says. “But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better.”
Then comes the graphic dissolve of the show’s slogan: EXTREME TIMES CALL FOR EXTREME MEASURES.
Sorry, I’m not impressed when a CEO grabs a mop, puts his arm around the other guys with mops like he’s at some group therapy session, and then pontificates about how he appreciates the struggles of the working class. Especially when it’s for the cameras.
In this week’s “Working Stiff” column, I argue that the participating CEOs on “Undercover Boss” come across as insincere, patronizing buffoons.
How about this for a slogan: EXTREME TV SHOWS REQUIRE EXTREMELY POOR JUDGMENT.
Going on this show is a foolish PR move. Even if a boss is sincere and really does feel for the guy making $8 bucks an hour to get his hand stuck in the meat grinder, the melodramatic music and close-ups added during editing will make him look condescending.
One CEO proudly declared he would be slumming it in budget motels “that are in line with someone who is new to town and working at an entry-level position.” Oh, the sacrifice!
Another boss seems shocked that a third-shift delivery driver never gets to see his wife awake.
Again, these executives are in a no-win situation. Even if they do sincerely care, caring on camera comes across as ridiculously contrived.
The smart CEOs would be much better off being nice off-camera.