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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Countering Corporate Propaganda

We are steeped in the cultural glorification of capitalist exploitation. What if we rejected economic individualism and instead embraced ideas rooted in collective well-being?

Terabass, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


By Sonali Kolhatkar


Streaming television channels these days are increasingly inserting advertising into their paid subscriber content. Thus, I recently found myself sitting through several commercials that struck me as emblematic of how out-of-touch corporate marketers are with the economic struggles of ordinary Americans.


A company offering cash advances to low-wage workers makes light of people’s financial difficulties. Take this ad, where a man buying groceries finds himself in the awkward position of having bought more food than he can afford to pay for. A fellow shopper in line points out that a simple app he could download on his phone “gives you up to $250 instantly.” The man pulls out his phone and instantly exclaims, “I got money!” and proceeds to make his purchase. But he sets aside the broccoli he had planned to buy with a wink and a nod to the kid in line next to him, because who likes broccoli anyway, right?


Not only does the ad mislead viewers about how long it takes to actually open an account on the app and have access to cash, but it deceptively portrays the app as “giving” money to a person in need when it’s money that he is borrowing against his own wages. Moreover, he will pay a monthly charge, or extra fees to access the money earlier. And, if he cannot pay it back in time, he will incur hefty interest charges out of his forthcoming wages. The ad also makes light of the plight of those who run out of money to buy groceries, and may have credit scores so low that they cannot get a credit card.


Other ads I encountered were similar. A food delivery service that pays a low base wage but allows workers to keep tips touts itself as a fun activity for those “looking for something new to do,”—in case of boredom? The company has ads showing workers happily dancing in their cars or glamorously shaking their hair (think shampoo ads) out of a scooter helmet, eager to pick up restaurant orders and deliver them to residences. They do this just to “keep things interesting,” because what could be more interesting than driving around all day to deliver hot food? The average pay is about $19 an hour but does not include the cost of fuel or car insurance, or account for income taxes. And of course, health and retirement benefits, as well as paid leave, are entirely out of the question.


Subcontracting companies that allow people to hire others to do grunt work for them also portray themselves in a similarly tantalizing manner. One company recently came under fire for a billboard ad showing a white man who had a project “due ASAP,” but was able to hire a smiling Black woman who would “be on it before EOD.” The ad’s corporate work-lingo gave a lighthearted veneer to what was effectively an exploitative situation.


The gig economy, which promises flexibility and autonomy, has always been touted as beneficial for workers. What often remains unsaid is everything workers lose in exchange: job security, reliable hours, health and retirement benefits, paid sick leave or vacation, promotion opportunities, and meaningful work. Companies based on the gig economy model command an army of part-time workers competing with each other for crumbs.


The seductive marketing that these companies employ has us laughing along at our own misfortunes. They want us to be grateful to live in a digital age where smartphones can turn our daily grind into uncertain wages that are a fraction of what our predecessors got as we smile through the pain of having no healthcare.


The pressure of the gig economy has infected the entire economic system. “Flexibility” is doublespeak for uncertainty. The “perk” of keeping 100 percent of all tips received is a euphemism for downward spiraling wages. The “freedom” of driving one’s own car as an integral part of the job hides the high cost of gig work.


Despite the relentlessly happy face painted over our exploitative economy, many Americans aren’t falling for it. A study by researchers at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found deep dissatisfaction with the current system. The researchers, in a guest op-ed for the New York Times, found that most people see “greed” as the driving force of the economy, and they “believe the rich and powerful have designed the economy to benefit themselves and have left others with too little or with nothing at all.”


They point out that “[s]tress is a rampant part of American life, much of it caused by financial insecurity.” But corporate ads routinely portray financial insecurity as a fun experience and Americans as willing and enthusiastic participants in a system designed to impoverish them.


Not only are the ads entirely out of step with what Americans face, but the indicators that economists, news media, and politicians use to measure the health of the national economy, are also deeply out of touch with reality.


This disconnect between capitalism’s reputation as an efficient economic system rewarding hard work and innovation and its reality as a system of mass impoverishment is endemic to our culture. At its heart, it is a system rooted in individual well-being, a seductive idea that appeals to the very human need to take sole credit for our achievements and feel shame when we fall through the cracks.


The modern American economy preys on our belief in this ideal. When we can’t afford to pay for groceries it’s our fault. If we can’t pay back the cash advance, we are to blame. Those who don’t grin with joy while delivering takeout are the ungrateful ones.


And if the economy is “booming,” the persistent feeling of collective malaise seems jarring. “Americans remain gloomy about the U.S. economy, even as GDP continues to expand and unemployment is at a five-decade low,” writes a CBS.com economic reporter. That’s because Americans are still struggling to pay off debts, keep up with bills, or afford housing. Have they all failed themselves, or has the economy failed them?


I fantasize about ads centered on economic narratives rooted in collective well-being: A man paying groceries with ease and showing off his union card in his wallet to those in line behind him. A woman who hops on a comfortable, reliable, and free public bus to a well-paying job at the same time every day because her hours are stable and she never has to pay for gas because her taxes cover the bus that she and her fellow workers use every day.


Such ideals are hardly radical and are based on liberation from the capitalist grind: unions even the playing field between bosses and workers, while publicly funded goods and services benefit us all.


If we think of the glorification of exploitative work as corporate propaganda, we can direct our anger over it into realizing the very real, and not-so-radical alternatives.


Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.


This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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