Take Back Your Vacation

Perhaps you have seen this television advertisement? A plump, mousy woman in a khaki skirt, a yellow top and an emerald green sweater jumps up on her desk. She addresses her co-workers, using her telephone as a megaphone: “Can I have your attention? I have 47 vacation days. That’s insane.”

She looks around earnestly, and one of her co-workers, an African American woman, glances up uncomfortably, as the office “Norma Rae” continues on her soapbox: “I have been saving them and earning them for what. To be a bridesmaid? We come in day after day. That ends now. Let’s take back our summer. Who is with me?” She scribbles “Vacation Now” on a piece of paper and holds it up for all to see. A lone man claps for her, nervously, and a white male co-worker, who has been watching the scene from his private office, lowers his window shade. The thirty-second advertisement is over, and the sponsor flashes on the screen: “Only Las Vegas. VisitLasVegas.Com.”

This ad is one of many right now, from various companies, that encourage workers to do a number of “radical” things, like use their vacation days or take a lunch break. In a television advertisement for McDonalds, one worker stands up defiantly and announces she is going to lunch. A female co-worker warns her, “Those days are gone now.” But an Asian American co-worker stands up and pulls off his employee badge. “I’m going with you. I don’t want to be chicken. I want to eat it.” An Applebee’s campaign features an inflatable decoy to make it look like you are sitting at your desk so you can sneak out to lunch.

These ads have received much attention. The New York Timesdevoted an article to them, and bloggers have been weighing in as well. Most agree that the advertisements are a cynical ploy to tap into worker frustration in order to sell the worst kind of corporate fare—McDonalds, Vegas hotel chains, Applebee’s, and Gold Peak Tea (which is offering a competition for $100,000 for “one year off” from your job).

Of course, cynical manipulation is the business of advertising, and these ads are particularly good at it. The VisitLasVegas.Com series presents a cast of white-collar workers who are trapped in cubicles, chafing under the tyranny of the trilling ring of the office phone or the constant ping of the email. One employee, when awarded a certificate for never having taken his vacation days, throws a monster fit, kicking over plants and ripping up his prize. Another employee who can’t stand his job executes a dramatic getaway—using a grappling hook to rappel through the ceiling tiles. The ads are quite funny, and they pound away at a singular theme: your job sucks, and you must find a way to get to Las Vegas.

It is easy to see these ads as an attempt by corporations to turn employee dissatisfaction—up sharply since the recession—into profit. As Harry Katz, dean of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations argues, “It’s an effort by management to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street spirit and redirect it to promote its product.”

On the other hand, as I argued in my first book, Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, there is always the teensy weensy possibility that ads like these might get people thinking about doing something truly radical. Isn’t it possible that in playing on consumers’ sense of being beaten down by their jobs, these ads have to ignite a modicum of resentment against the system?

Perhaps a more persuasive argument is that these ads work like a cultural trap door. As much as they might seem to re-direct worker dissatisfaction—they also do much to reveal it. And hiding behind the humor in these advertisements are some surprising truths about the 2012 American worker.

1) We don’t take lunch breaks. 65% of American workers eat at their desks, according to a recent study by a company called Right Management. Within the corporate world there are two schools of thought on this issue. One group, represented by a company called the Energy Project, argues that workers are more productive when they take a real lunch break. According to their  website, Energy Project has helped companies like Google keep their workers from burning out. At the other end is a corporate treatment like that reflected by a recently settled lawsuit, , involving a woman who was fired by Target for taking her lunch break late three times over 18 months—once by two minutes. She won $275,000 in damages.

2) We don’t use our vacation days. Right Management found that the average American worker leaves 11 unused vacation days by year’s end. Why is this? The survey revealed that workers are afraid of getting fired. John de Graaf, director of the organization Take Back Your Time, wonders why the US is so different from other Western countries. “This is the only wealthy country in the world that does not guarantee any paid vacation time,” de Graaf said. “Every other country understands that this makes people healthier and creates a better workforce.”

3) We don’t (or can’t) call in sick. Only one third of the lowest paid 25% of working Americans get compensated if they have to stay home sick. Even in the private sector, only 60% of American workers have paid sick leave. Who has the best sick leave policies? Most unionized workers, and, especially, unionized government workers—like teachers, cops and firemen—whose pay, benefits, and right to belong to unions have been especially under attack in the last year.

4) We get fired for whatever. If you work for Chick-fil-A, you might be fired if you don’t attend your boss’s weekly prayer breakfast, even after you donated a kidney to your boss. And here’s another great list of things you could be fired for, including shaving your head, wearing a Packers’ tie in Chicago, and tweeting a joke from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. You can keep up with these and other outrages at Corey Robin’s blog.

When I watch these ads, I am compelled to think more deeply, and depressingly, about the current state of the American worker. I am personally shielded from many of these outrages, as a tenured professor at a prestigious university. But I will confess that I do often work on vacation. I am writing this post a few hundred feet from a wild rocky beach on the Pacific Coast. But before I run off to play with my kids, let me close by wishing you the best possible summer vacation, or just any vacation, during these dark times for American workers.

Kathy M. Newman

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Take Back Your Vacation

  1. Pingback: USW Blog » Blog Archive » All Shook Up: What a Viral Video Movement Can Tell Us about Global Class Politics

  2. Pingback: All Shook Up: What a Viral Video Movement Can Tell us about Global Class Politics | Working-Class Perspectives

  3. Your Space Buddy Exitor says:

    Fired for not attending your Boss’s Prayer Breakfast when one works at Chick-Fil-A? If that were the case it would be posted everywhere. Somewhere someone is always taking shots at Chick-Fil-A and this story would be very “juicy” for them to report. Yet I have yet to hear this anywhere else.
    Good work on exposing your liberal, anti-Chick-Fil-A bias. I guess you just had to jump on the bandwagon, didn’t you?


  4. Jim Ellis says:

    Do you know of someone who got fired at Chick-fil-A for not attending their bosses prayer breakfast even after they gave them a kidney, or was that just something you made up by combining unrelated stories so you could take a cheap shot that shows intollerance for people of other religions and cultures than your own? If you read the Forbes article you link to you would find a lot of very positive things that come from Chick-fil-A’s philosophical & moral foundation including multiple homes for children being funded and a push to give people a chance when nobody else will. They don’t cheat anyone pulling a bait-and-switch on them. There’s no “Suck them in with a job then preach the hell out of them” going on. They are open about what they stand for and obviously aren’t hypocritical about it. If you are a big supporter of PETA you don’t look for a job in a slaughter house. If you are pro-life you don’t look for a job in an abortion clinic. What is the difference? They all assume you will support their basic philosophy and mission or you are out the door. We need more tollerance ALL THE WAY AROUND, not just where you want it.


  5. Pingback: Lunch at Your Desk? Not Healthy! | Healthy Concepts with a Nutrition Bias

  6. Wolfy says:

    You nailed thìs one. Dark times indeed.


  7. Liz Hill says:

    I used to work in a bank – and because in so many areas the risk of fraud was an issue, we were required to take a minimum number of consecutive days of vacation, the idea being that any fraud would be exposed in that time. When it\’s in the company\’s interest, vacation is good. 🙂


  8. Jessie Ramey says:

    Kathy, your work is amazing! Thank you for sharing it with us. The message is particularly significant as we watch real union-busting efforts across the country right now. After all, the issues you highlight — from breaks to paid vacation, sick time, and job protections — were all hard-won by our union fore-mothers and fathers. Many non-union workers now enjoy those benefits (or at least expect them, even when they are not taking advantage of them).


  9. Ever try working for a consulting company? Days, nights, ‘n weekends are the norm – year round — always last minute proposals and reports to get out the door. Vacation? Only when you quit.


  10. Have a great vacation, Kathy Newman. Thank you for inspiring others to do the same.


  11. Terry says:

    Some times it is not the boss but the bean counters that are the problem. One year I had to deal with some issues while I was out on vacation. I charged the time I worked as actual work time, and charged PTO for the rest of my week on my time sheet. My boss signed my timesheet without question, since he knew it was truthful. Timekeeping sent it back to him questioning my 2 hours or so per day while having PTO for the rest of each day. I am lucky my boss supported me so that I did not lose out on PTO for the time I actually worked. However, that was the last time I was “reachable” on vacation. Shucks, “I was out of pager range & cell phone coverage” if someone from work tried to contact me! And, my laptop (work computer) stayed home.


  12. Pingback: 9 Ways to Get Yourself Fired « Corey Robin

  13. Sara Appel says:

    Terrific observations, Kathy– and I say this having just returned from my own two-week Pacific Northwest “vacation,” the latter part of which I spent feeling anxious over my (deeply) internalized lack of productivity. I had to keep reminding myself that I had in fact “earned” this time off– and I just defended my dissertation! Why on earth would I think that I didn’t deserve a little time for “what we will,” even if that involved sitting on my a** watching the Olympics (and ads like those you discuss above)? The boss in the back of my mind is already threatening to fire me, and I don’t even have the job yet. I guess it’s a good thing we’re cultural studies scholars, and can work while watching TV.

    But anyway, one thing your post got me thinking about was the relationship between the “vacation” or “break” as a form of protest, and escapism. I keep thinking about the 8 Hour Movement chant– “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.” The ads you mention are all for experiences or products that revolve less around a robust use of time for “what we will”– time to invest in our relationships, make art, cook a good meal, enjoy a hobby, etc.– and more around further depletion workers’ mental, physical, or economic heath. When one “breaks” for Vegas, she’ll likely lose the little disposable income remaining in her bank account; no need to mention the negative health implications of “busting out” for McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I think that’s why these ads feel like such cynical, socially irresponsible marketing. They’re co-opting the idea of protest, which is about rupture and change of oppressive social systems, and turning it into a form of escapism that re-enforces these same systems and pulls those desperate to “break away” deeper into its clutches (like advertizing quicksand).

    Advertizers realize that worker-consumers of the (post) Occupy moment are both exasperated with their lack of power over the conditions of their “24 hour” lives, and still too fearful of radical change to truly break from this system even as they begin to understand its oppressive affects. So they do what they do best: provide the illusion of choice– insidiously packaged as the choice to break free from exploitative working conditions– while offering the reality of products and experiences that can ultimately only lead to an increase in fear. If you bust out for McDonalds often enough, you’ll probably need heath care down the road that you won’t be able to afford (or won’t be provided for you), leading to more internalized helplessness/hopelessness (fear). If you enjoy a little too much “freedom” in Vegas, you’ll come back to the office even MORE dependent on the same exploitative job that you ran from, and feeling less able to agitate for more equitable conditions. It’s hard not to feel like the “trap door” you mention above has no way out. People aren’t taking breaks and vacation time because they’re afraid of getting fired; so advertizing diffuses the subversive potential of our “disgruntled worker” moment by making sure that workers are even more afraid when they return from their jaunt to Vegas or Mickey D’s. How can we really break free, and get some time for “what we will” that doesn’t increase our fear?


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