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As workplace representations become more focused on the side of white-collar work, are we more apt to see executive offices or conference rooms rather than cubicle farms? Are we more likely to see the white-collar employee drawn as a figure with whom we might aspire to identify, or depicted as petty, vapid bureaucrats? We are likely to see all of these and more, because the kind of product being advertised and marketed influences the way it is positioned and the kind of representations that are constructed in its behalf. We have seen ads for pain relief, cold remedies, and office supplies where the white-collar worker functions primarily as a prop or cartoon figure for pitching the brandname good. Illustrative was a 1998 Staples office supplies commercial set in an office with three white-collar executives discussing how to reduce wasteful spending on office supplies; in walks a fourth character who is immediately caricatured as the office know-it-all, loudmouth, and goof-off. In a matter of seconds, with his imaginary golf club in hand, he mocks the others for trying to be productive and cut expenses especially while the boss is away. Of course, the punchline of this punchless commercial is that the boss is on the other end of the conference call, never far away from his work or his staff. Whooppee, the brown-nosing fool is exposed. This little story permits Staples to identify itself with the first side of a binary opposition that looks like this:

constructive, efficient, cost-saving

/

non-productive, loudmouth, goof-off

The slacker does appear in ads, but usually for 'humorous' effect, and rarely as a figure of identification. Consider, by contrast, how the truck-driving cowboy is generally represented as a potential figure of identification. What other negative metaphors regarding employees do we see?

Another depiction that appears periodically is "employees as teenagers." This depiction frames employees as preferring to play and party rather than work. Employees, in this model, can always be presumed to slack unless they are watched or supervised. In fact the old story line of 'when the boss is away, the employees will play' is still called forth more often than we might anticipate. New wireless phone technologies sometimes construct exaggerated and comic accounts about the use of this technology as a means of keeping office employees terrified and uncertain about when the boss might reappear. One such ad for
Ericsson Mobile Phones features a manager lying under a beach umbrella and using his mobile phone to keep tabs on his employees.

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But wait, we're getting ahead of the story. The ad opens with a dart striking a picture of a baldheaded man [the boss] right in the nose. "Bullseye." An old rock song, "I don't wanna work" is blaring away as people dance and cavort as if it were New Year's Eve.

In the foreground a white-collar man spins a secretary in a chair. Over the sound of the music she hears her phone ringing and answers it, "Wright Incorporated." Then "oh, hi Mr. Wright," as she suddenly stiffens her body and stands at military attention. She tries to signal the others and someone turns off the music. The camera returns to her saying "sure, just one minute" as she presses a button on the phone and places it on speakerphone. The employees are now listening to their boss's voice. "Hi everyone. I've had to cut my vacation short. I'll be in the office in, um, 10 minutes. See you then." Now for the first time the viewer meets the boss on a beach, speaking on his mobile phone as he relaxes. The vacationing boss has merely to dial his cellular phone and voilà he turns the office employees' festivities at the home office into terror and panic by the announcement that he cut short his vacation, and will be at the office in a few minutes. But it's a ruse, merely an advertising device for stressing the clear voice quality of wireless services; and of course, the kind of ruse that reminds people who's boss. There ensues a mad scramble to clean up. But removing a paper airplane stuck in an overhead fire sprinkler, sets off the sprinklers and the alarm system, soaking the now penitent revelers -- it turns out to be their just punishment. As the ad ends, we hear a male voiceover declare, "That's the power of voice," while onscreen the manager smiles sadistically to himself, gloating as he folds up his mobile phone. "I just love doing that," he chortles and grins as he thinks about scaring the shit out of his employees who he knows are desperately falling over themselves to clean up before he gets back.

Behind this mean-spirited effort at humor lies a potentially foreboding message if one is a salaried office worker -- the employer can keep tabs on employees with electronic, digital technologies, the better to surveill them with. The advertiser is selling wireless phone services with an eye not to the emancipation of work, but to the way in which this technology can contribute to the panoptic totality available to those in control. The secretary's sudden switch to a posture of attention captures the disciplining awareness that one is being watched. The caricaturish effort at humor is crucial to distancing viewers from the actual relations of surveillance, fear and discipline in hierarchically organized offices.

Is it odd that the question of authority relations in the white-collar workplace is sometimes made visible in 1990s television ads? Conversely, why has workplace authority mostly disappeared from blue-collar workplaces in ads for trucks, pain relief, automobiles, beer, etc? What explains this apparent shift? In the world of TV advertising, manual labor no longer requires discipline and oversight, while mental labor seems to necessitate new tools to enforce workplace discipline and productivity. Now admittedly, TV advertising has produced an oddly populist vision of manual workers -- just as often this is the self-employed carpenter as the wage-earning order-taking factory worker. Indeed, in those ads that actually claim to depict their own workers -- here I am thinking of the 1990s' campaigns like those of
Saturn and Ford -- there is an effort to stress the absence of foremen, while emphasizing that the presence of collaborative teamwork ensures higher quality production. Inspite of the crude humor of ads like that by Ericsson, they may offer a more candid appraisal of the white-collar landscape than the glib legitimation campaigns that fashion a workplace free of power, authority and domination.

We must be mindful however that this is but one of several representations of the contemporary office work environment. By contrast with this representation of management by surveillance oversight, the Generation D ads by
MCI WorldCom depict an authority-less workspace where playful moments are interwoven into work and where there seems to be an absence of regulative structures.


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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey