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.