TV spectators of last night’s Super Bowl were treated to many slick, high-concept ads, but one probably stuck out to the millions of McDonald’s employees who were watching: the company’s spot trumpeting its new “pay with lovin’” campaign. The company is rolling out a new way to bribe customer loyalty amid declining sales by randomly picking some who will get their food and drink for free. Instead of money, they have to pay with “lovin.’”
According to the Super Bowl ad, this can range from being told by the cashier to call your mother and tell her you love her (no word on what happens if you don’t have a mother) to being commanded to dance to giving the cashier a fist bump. Leaving aside what customers may think of being asked to perform these tasks in return for their food, little attention is given to the other side of the register: the workers themselves.
McDonald’s employees are notoriously low-paid. Average hourly pay, according to Glassdoor, is $8.25 for a crew member. (It’s just slightly more for the food and beverage industry generally at $8.84.) Even in a low-paid service job, of course, there is a minimum expectation of professional behavior at work that would require being polite and even friendly to customers.
But McDonald’s is now asking its employees to do even more. They have to come up with cutesy tasks for their customers. And if the ad itself is any indication, they can’t just deadpan a request that a family hug. If someone dances, they have to dance too. If someone doesn’t seem too pumped to call his mom, they have to needle him into it. And they have to react with joy when the asked-for response is delivered. The workers are being told to put on a performance for customers in order to get a performance back.
This is a pretty blatant example of emotional labor: the requirement that a low-wage employee not just show up to work and adequately perform her duties, but that she put on a veneer of happiness and cheer for the customer to elicit an emotional response in him. For example, in 2013 Pret A Manger put up on its website (and then subsequently took down) expected “behaviours” its employees were supposed to exhibit, like creating a “sense of fun” and appearing “genuinely friendly.” The ones it wouldn’t allow, on the other hand, were bad moods and acting like they were “just here for the money.” Because ordering a sandwich is now supposed to be a delightful experience, and of course a low-wage clerk is at work for something other than a paycheck.
This is what’s pernicious about emotional labor: it requires poorly paid people to slather a smile onto their face and cover up the real conditions under which they labor. McDonald’s has been one of the fast-food companies hit by massive, repeated waves of labor unrest by striking workers demanding better pay, the ability to form a union and an end to retaliation for their actions. Workers have been vocal about the fact that they and their families can’t survive on the money they make. But the company instead wants its customers to see employees who are genuinely delighted that a mother hugged her son in front of them.
The demand that people perform emotional labor has become more and more widespread: researcher Arlie Hochschild originally estimated a third of all jobs required it in 1983 but that half of them do today. Yet workers don’t get more money when they’re required to do more at a menial job than just show up. Men get a significant wage boost when they move into a job that requires more cognitive labor, but they see a 6 percent pay penalty for moving to one that demands more emotional labor. Women don’t see this penalty, although they do get a boost for cognitive work—likely because we view smiling and catering to a customer’s emotions as women’s work.
Emotional labor can be even trickier for women, however, because it can be seen as an invitation. Waitresses know this conundrum well. If they touch someone or leave a smiley face on a check, they’ll get a bigger tip. But they also might get a pinch in the ass. Working for tips and knowing that putting on a show of friendliness leads to an atmosphere where nearly 80 percent of women say they’ve been sexually harassed by customers.
McDonald’s might want to consider, then, what an invitation to “pay with lovin’” could sound like to a customer in this industry. It was just sued over alleged sexual harassment of its employees by their managers. What does it invite on its workers by asking customers to come up with ways to show their lovin’?