Symbols of the Working Class: The Call Centre and Alienating Advertising
This analysis is formed around a personal call centre testimonial, which, despite our collectivity credo, nonetheless remains anonymous, and no doubt connects to many other such experiences in the telecommunications sector, so much so that this fact may even collectivise (in the sense of ‘universalise’) the piece anyhow. Through it we’ll aim to fathom something of Marx’s idea of alienation as it functions in representations of call centre work in television ads. First off, we’ll take the example of an advert for an insurance company – or something like that – that was on air a while ago, which ended with an iris-transition (in film, the fade-to-black edit which includes the cut-out circle through which you can still see the central character, as in old cartoons) onto the featured call operative; while we were watching it together, my dad asked me: ‘do you work inside one of those circles then?’
A funny jest, but one which touches on this Marxian notion; the question arises, ‘what is really shown of the working conditions of call centres in this medium?’ The website and pamphlets of the call-handling company I served for six years typically show a plush brilliant-white environment with polished pretty women and suitably suited men sprightlily alert to take your call via pristine top-of-the-range headsets; the exterior shows a glass city tower piercing the sky. The reality of course was a much more crowded room with murkier décor populated by bored-looking ops of all shapes and sizes busily chatting to customers on the ground floor of a business park office in the countryside; all facing their consoles as call after call comes into their ear without choice and without let-up.
Here the call centre labour conditions are alienated from the services the call centre is selling; alienation is even employed in the call centre’s very working method, in that the kindly, helpful and sympathetic voice – isolated in the ear of the customer, on the end of the phone – is alienated from the cramped noisy office in which it actually speaks. Take the new Tassimo advert as another example: it shows an arrogant young call operative in his own spacious cubicle (we were six to a ‘pod’, or big desk) leisurely giving his spiel with über-chutzpah whilst his mate stands beside him miming the script likewise. The ad gives the popular impression of the job being populated by smarmy privacy-intruders with their heads up their arses; however – and whilst there are plenty of this type – the advert’s representation feeds us this popular call centre impression divorced from the actuality of the call centre itself, i.e., alienated from the working conditions of the job. (Another condition being, as John McInally puts it, the ‘computers [that] dictate the time and duration of breaks, with no flexibility whatsoever’, ensuring ‘employees are under constant monitoring and surveillance’ (in Owen Jones, Chavs, p.127); our monitoring system, in the call centre I was at, being called – with all the ironic lack of irony of the Benthamite company ‘Panopticon’, analysed by Gemma Moss at adornomental – ‘Big Brother’.)
And as, as Jones has put it, today in this country ‘the call centre worker is as good a symbol of the working class as any’ (ibid.), we must see that this is in part because – like those in the alienated working class jobs Marx identified so long ago – their reality is obscured by the relations of production, that is, this image production. As the cuts keep rolling in it’s high time to see the condition of the working class in uncut form!