Annie Leibovitz photographed many celebrities: the Queen, Kanye West, John Lennon – and now Mary, an engineering manager. She is among a number Hyundai employees shot for the carmaker’s marketing campaign for its cancer charity. Of course, this is also a sales pitch.
The pandemic caused a fix in the celebrity market. They suddenly seemed light-hearted rather than aspiring. In July last year, British Vogue did not display models or actors on its cover, but essential workers. It may be new to the magazine to showcase frontline employees, but organizations have long used employees to make sales and recruit. The UK government has launched a campaign to attract carers, with real carers supporting clients who shave, socialize and live independently. Such stage management necessarily hides problems. Gavin Edwards, senior national social worker at Unison, a trade union, was bluntly concerned about “smooth advertising” that does not address a “job without sick pay, where poor treatment and exploitation are common.”
Social media has rewritten the rules. Employees can promote themselves as much as the brand – and tend to turn out of control.
I have to admit my addiction to TikTok (hello, fellow kids!). The short videos are captivating: it shows everything from chubby babies to inner sadness, it also reveals insights into working life. There are caregivers who complain about long hours, petrol shortages, burnout, as well as jokes, dances and affection. Truck drivers explain working conditions, toilet breaks and where they eat. Banking interns account for their workday, wages, and interview preparation.
This is useful for employers. One recruiter at a consultation told me that TikTok and YouTube videos by 20-something help reach students who are left cold by recruitment scholarships. Real people demystify and humanize the work.
This is important at a time when so many workers are resigning their jobs in what has been called The Great Resignation, says Patrick Thelen, assistant professor at San Diego State University. He examined employee advocacy and said: “The past 20 months have changed what people expect from their employers. Work-life balance, flexibility and burnout have become increasingly important topics, and employees are looking for companies that meet their expectations. ”
It’s no surprise that employers want workers to defend the brand on social media – like Walmart do. Jenna Jacobson, assistant professor at Ryerson University, looks at social media and brands and says that in some cases “there is an exchange of money or gifts”.
Paying people for additional work makes sense, but can lead to a false authenticity that can backfire, as happened with Amazon when it deployed ambassadors to counter bad news. “When you ask employees to act like they’re having fun, don’t expect a positive outcome when they feel miserable in your workplace,” says Thelan, quoting reports last year from a competition at GameStop in which employees are asked to dance on TikTok to win extra shifts.
These relationships can be exploitative. “Companies like to co-opt young people’s brand-oriented content when it suits them, but offer little stability in employment,” says Jenna Drenten, acting chair of the marketing department at Quinlan School of Business, Chicago. Yet the power dynamics are complicated. “Brand ambassadors represent the [company] and they are brands themselves, ”she adds.
This is an issue I struggle with. If I tweet this article, am I promoting myself or the Financial Times?
More importantly, tweets and postings emphasize workers’ circumstances and provide a platform to speak out. In the most meta-example, last month a product manager explain in a YouTube video why she resigned from her job at TikTok: her reasons include a lack of career development, intense working conditions, a lack of diversity and the impact on her health.
“I just could not be there anymore,” she said.
Pilita Clark is gone