My friend, Terry Starbucker, a leadership expert, wrote a compelling post entitled, The Trouble With Undercover Boss (If Your’e a Boss), where he makes the case that the CBS show is bad for bosses because a great CEO would be “known to EVERY employee; that is, there would be no way that the CEO could go on [the show]. He or she would be recognized immediately.” Indeed.
Shut the front door! Did he just say that The Secret Millionaire is bad for society? Isn’t that a bit over the top?
I did say it. And, yes, maybe it is a bit hyperbolic. But, to my mind, both shows exploit America’s working class for entertainment purposes. I think of it as Poorsploitation. Just like Blacksploitation films of the 70’s created an entire genre of film, Poorsploitation in the 2000’s has created an entire genre of TV programming.
Sure, some posit that the Blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment, but many civil rights leaders and activists, alike, felt the genre perpetuated common white stereotypes about black people and, as a result, many called for the end of the Blaxploitation genre. I’d like to call an end to these Poorsploitation programs because they too suggest some sort of empowerment and recognition for the working class but instead, insidiously perpetuate the stereotype of the working class as lost and helpless without the benevolent boss or the millionaire to make their life better and worthwhile.
Not only are Undercover Boss and Secret Millionaire “Poorsploitation” programs but I’d even include Extreme Home Makeover in the category. Much of the programming that is produced in the “reality TV” genre exploits individuals or groups for the entertainment of others. Think of The Biggest Loser (even the name is exploitative) and Intervention, which exploits people with the disease of addiction so we, the audience, can invade the most personal aspect of a someone’s life to marvel at the destruction these addicts have caused and the pathetic life they live.
Of course, you’ll argue that Intervention helps these addicts get into recovery and that is important and meaningful; that Undercover Boss helps the CEO have an awakening and that’s good for his employees; that The Secret Millionaire recognizes how fortunate they are and gives money to people doing important, charitable work; that the families in Extreme Home Makeover get treated to the most amazing new home and so much love from so many people. You might even argue, and you’d have a good point, that The Biggest Loser saves lives by helping morbidly obese people shed hundred of pounds. And, yes, participants choose to be on these shows, even vie for the opportunity to be on these shows.
We must consider, however, that exploitation is often insidious. It starts small and then creeps up on you day by day until its virus takes hold and sickens your entire system. In my book, the idea of a boss tricking their underlings, or a millionaire bamboozling poor people, into thinking they are someone other than who they say they are, is unethical.
Moreover, if a “millionaire” selling aspirational products to folks that can barely scrape two nickels together doesn’t know how “real” people live, she’s completely out of touch with reality and consumed by a blindly ego-centric point of view. How can she not know that the average working person in America earns about $50,000 over the course of one year and that the working poor might earn $17,000, not $500,000 in 5-minutes at the back of the room after a sales pitch from the stage.
Just as insidious is the idea that some big shot CEO comes down to the level of his peasants and realizes that he (usually seems to be a man) can’t do the job he asks his employees to do. Well, Praise Be! He has an epiphany and realizes that his decisions effect the people who work for him, that they’re human beings with aspirations and dreams, and that he should change a few things about the way he does business? Are you serious?
You run a multi-million dollar, often multi-hundred million dollar company and you need to go on a TV show where you trick your employees into thinking you’re someone else to have this realization? If I was on the board of one of these companies and was witness to this travesty, I’d fire the CEO before the first commercial break. Oh, and, to add insult to injury, the CEO gives the employee a tiny promotion with a tiny increase in salary or maybe $5000 to go to school to learn how to become a chef, as was the case on one episode. Again, are you kidding? What’s $5000 to a company with tens of millions or 100’s of millions of dollars in sales? And, let’s not forget the tens of millions of dollars in publicity and advertising these companies and individuals get for going on these shows.
These programs feed on the disease of small thinking and I, for one, stand against them. Call me a bleeding heart. Call me a tree hugger. Call me too sensitive. Call me self-righteous. Call me whatever you want, I just think we should expect more from our “millionaires,” our “bosses,” and ourselves, by working for more transparency, more equality, more empathy, and more respect.
Let’s (always) think bigger about who we are and what we offer the world.
UPDATE: Andy just pointed me to a segment that Bill Maher did on his show about this very topic about these specific programs. (If you watch the segment, please do your best to not make this post about Bill Maher. The discussion in the comments is sophisticated and diverse in opinions and all commenters have done a great job focussing on the questions raised in the post.)
Oh, and the share buttons finally started working again so you can use them, if you like.