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The Serve-Us Industry

What's so funny about ads that turn workers into peons?

In August of last year, Yelp sold its newly acquired delivery service, Eat24, to Grubhub in a deal that consolidated the ever-changing roster of companies in the meal distribution industry to less than a dozen players. Though Yelp’s ownership of Eat24 was short-lived, their last ad campaign together was striking, if only for laying bare the hidden social contract behind this tech-driven service industry. True, the message was easy to miss at first glance, since the tagline was an apparent non-sequitur: “Love food but hate pants?”

There are, of course, many reasons to get a meal delivered, but this ad targets only one: the consumer, who wants food, doesn’t want to get presentable and go outside. It’s a relatable sentiment. Isn’t everyone anti-pants? Indeed, most cartoon animals appear to hate them so much that they exclusively wear shirts.

The advertising tagline puts the customer’s preference first, ignoring that if you order food via delivery, a person has to go near, or into, your home with your food. The Eat24 ad, in other words, achieves in words what the gig-driven food-delivery sector does every day in the economy writ large: it erases the person who (barely) holds down this low-paying, physically arduous job from the rules that govern the socio-economic relations in the outside world.

This come-on is one of many such examples of bungled, labor-insensitive advertisements in the gig economy. The same theme—again brimming with entitled-consumer attitude—appears in a recent series of ads for the delivery company Seamless (which, like Eat24, is property of Grubhub, although unlike Eat24 is not being phased out by the mother company). The company’s earlier campaigns had been to deride home-cooking as a loser-avocation for milquetoasts in the suburbs, as in “Cooking is so Jersey,” or “Cook when you’re dead, or living in Westchester.” Recently, though, Seamless has taken a new tack: posting ads that offer examples of the “special instructions” that its user base can pass along to the company’s just-in-time delivery persons when placing online orders. The ads feature instructions that are whimsical—or, you could say, bossy. “Please draw a whale on the bag,” reads one attributed to a Charlie from Astoria. “He doesn’t need to be eating bread or anything, just believing in himself.” A Simon from Midtown asks, “Please make one additional tiny version of my order for my hamster.” These are funny, sort of—but it’s something less than amusing to suggest that the people preparing your food perform extra tasks at your whim, and purely for your entertainment, in the midst of their already demanding work duties.

“Please make sure the mayonnaise is organic,” says a character named John from Williamsburg in an ad for Seamless.

A real kicker is the one ascribed to Tanya from Brooklyn Heights. “Go to 2B. Tell them to stop stealing my wi-fi. Deliver to 2A for a well-earned high-five.” This joke, too, hinges on a position of neo-feudal privilege, under which the person responsible for presenting the food at your door makes an additional stop to perform a socially invidious service for you, gratis. And in recognition of this servile chore, the hapless food deliverer is expected to joyously bask in the customer’s temporary admiration and gratitude.

This “go do things for me” attitude is close to the heart of a company like Postmates, which offers meal delivery among a suite of courier-performed tasks to ease you through your day. (An independent contractor for Postmates can pick up your dry-cleaning or get you groceries, for example.) But the permeation of this attitude, though marketing, to all delivery-driven labor works to further marginalize an already casualized, precarious brand of online labor.

Obviously, these ads are imagining a specific sort of customer—a young working professional who lives with roommates (or other young neighbors) in a trendy neighborhood, who buys things online, has money to spend on food delivery in the first place, and who has very particular tastes that are expected to be met. “Please make sure the mayonnaise is organic,” says a character named John from Williamsburg in still another Seamless ad. “Yes, I can taste the difference.” The entitlement here is palpable. I don’t think anyone actually likes these ads—but they collectively construct a world that consistently rewards and coddles those who are perceived as mattering more than others, via the labor of those who don’t. They are, in one of the pet clichés of high-end marketing, aspirational.

Even though some of the ads make pro forma shows of politesse, with the use of the word “please,” most of these mock delivery instructions are in the imperative case—they are orders and commands. A more civilized way to pitch a request for service, among people who might be considered rough social equals, is the interrogative. What’s so wrong with a polite request? But as all these ads make abundantly clear, you don’t order delivery online so you can ask if someone can get what you want. These special instructions are echo chambers of personal desire, augmenting the core customer fantasy that animates the digitally enabled food delivery experience: the promise of a completely consumer-centric encounter. They don’t just advertise a service of convenience; they offer a lifestyle of control—catering to you, rather than for you. Seamless, indeed.

For New York workers trapped at the wrong end of this social contract, moving about in the world isn’t the lark that your average Seamless ad suggests. According to surveys taken last year by the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average wage for restaurant delivery workers is $10.85 an hour. The minimum wage for tipped food-service workers in New York City is $8.65 an hour (with a $4.35 tip credit, bringing the mandated hourly minimum wage to $13). Not only is such work hardly remunerative, but it’s also highly dangerous, and grueling in a host of other ways; workers on bicycles must navigate streets dominated by more powerful vehicles, and many have to use their personal phones and their own bikes (many of which are stolen), further undercutting their already paltry pay scales.

Not only does this industry’s marketing talk down to its producers and deliverers; it also, quite literally, doesn’t permit them to talk back. Grubhub ads overtly encourage customers to bypass routine social niceties in their delivery encounters: “Everything great about eating, combined with everything great about not talking to people.” Yes, you might make less chitchat with the courier at your door than with the waiter at the local Indian buffet—but this ad evokes the feudal luxury of speechless, soundless service, of removing humanity from such transactions. It’s been suggested that such ads are xenophobic, but their casually imperial mien suggests a simpler, if also more sweeping aspiration: they are indifferent.

The people performing the services that strenuously exalt your preference and gratify your convenience thus become the objects of your snobbery.

Another Grubhub ad continues to highlight the sweet deferential boon of being served by a silent workforce: “Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.” The computer is represented here as the alternative to human conversation—which is why, perhaps, those Seamless “special instructions” ads get so bossy, and why the imperative case is the dominant idiom: now, no longer do customers have to present themselves to other humans, and to garnish their demands with unnecessary prattle.

The computer, actually, is the ultimate silent servant; but that it deposits its sequence of directives to an entire pack of humans, as opposed to other gadgets along the supply chain, never seems to penetrate the fog of food-delivery marketing. Here, for example, is still another directive barked out in a Grubhub ad: “Order online. Because ‘no peanuts’ and ‘mo’ peanuts’ sound awfully similar over the phone.” The computer-in-service cannot make the mistake that, apparently, a regular human might. The new delivery method is, then, a reliable machine—and the humans who deliver the food are absorbed into it as the regrettably necessary mediators of the final delivery transaction.

But what is especially important in these ads is that many of them seem to be suggesting the unwanted alternative to their service is human contact. “Satisfy your craving for zero human contact,” reads one smug Seamless tagline. This agoraphobic ad genre stresses that, without online food delivery, you’d have to order by phone, or (horrors!) place an order in person, and then wait. All of these ads ignore the host of other online ordering services competing for the privileged yuppie dollar—and overlooks that anyone who truly detests ordering over the phone hasn’t been burdened with that chore since before Grubhub bought Campusfood in 2011.

The point of this whole ad genre is not to highlight marketplace competition, or longer-term trends in the service sector. No, it’s to transform humanity at large as the enemy of hermetic consumer pleasure. With this quasi-Hobbesian outlook driven firmly home, it’s but a small step toward positing that certain humans are merely lesser ones. The people performing the services that strenuously exalt your preference and gratify your convenience thus become the objects of your snobbery.

Food delivery services, of course, aren’t the only market players who peddle the existential added value of making it seem as though the consumers using their service have superseded the tasks they would otherwise be performing for themselves. TaskRabbit, which enlists freelance labor to meet just-in-time demand, lays out the master-servant dynamic at the heart of its business model quite baldly: “We do chores. You live life.”

It’s a line that suggests there is a whole class of people who are permitted (or maybe even destined) to endure bad conditions, long hours, and low pay, so that another class of people can have their cravings instantly gratified. In his 1899 treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, American economist Thorstein Veblen (who predicted this kind of new feudalism in the twentieth century techno-business world) explained that the leisure class’s exploits are grounded in a primordial capitalist division of labor: “The institution of a leisure class is the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, according to which some employments are worthy and others unworthy.” Messengers bike through the rain, snow, and traffic, lugging huge packages—all because the service on offer is not worth the consumer’s time. Here’s Veblen’s gloss on how the work of underlings becomes the totem of leisure-class privilege: “As seen from the economic point of view, leisure, considered as an employment, is closely allied in kind with the life of exploit; and the achievements which characterize a life of leisure, and which remain as its decorous criteria, have much in common with the trophies of exploit.”

But these exploitive ads are especially remarkable for bringing the Veblenian script of our economic life front and center. Indeed, they are explaining that it is precisely this dynamic that makes their services so great, so convenient, and so satisfying. And these companies are all imitating one another with this rhetoric—competing for the optimal way to market an all-but-invisible workforce.