Undercover Boss

By Noah Graff

Sunday night, after the Super Bowl, I watched the premier of the new CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.” I have to say I was quite moved by the end of the episode. For those of you out there who haven’t seen it, it’s a reality show in which heads of large corporations go “undercover” with a film crew to work amongst the company’s average employees. In the first episode the COO of Waste Management, Larry O’Donnell, works as a litter collector, Porta Potty cleaner, garbage man, along with several other menial jobs.

The employees he works alongside are all depicted as sympathetic, down to earth folks, with personal stories that border on inspirational. O’Donnell is also depicted well as the sympathetic boss willing to take responsibility for the faults he sees in company policies and management.

I myself have made documentaries, and have my own reality dating show on YouTube called Jew Complete Me. So as someone who has produced and starred in a reality show I know a thing or two about the subjectivity and ethical questions involved when producing and editing “reality.”

It’s obviously risky to be on a reality show, especially when you don’t have editing control. I’m sure some of the PR people from Waste Management thought it was a joke when someone posed the idea of being featured on a national television program in which they in essence spy on themselves.

Although, I do have a feeling that prior to agreeing to be on the show, CBS gave Waste Management some assurance that they wouldn’t be crucified. I could tell that the producers of the show did a great job working with Waste Management’s Human Resources department to find great, likable people, whose endearing qualities would compensate for the company’s faults.

We knew that a few juicy problems in the company were going to be exposed—that’s why we were watching. But the PR team must have wagered that if the employees of the company were so compelling, as well as the big boss, Waste Management would look better than it did before the show. After all, no one is perfect, and no company is perfect, obviously. And heroes aren’t perfect, but they are genuine and honest. Wow, that just sounds so American. I like it!

Could reality TV be the new trend in advertising? I see some parallels in this presentation of Waste Management with that of the recent self-depreciating Domino’s Pizza commercials. They both try to relate to the consumer by admitting their imperfections and do it in an entertaining way. Has either company convinced me of its worth? I’m not sure, but at least I’m paying attention to what they have to say.

Question: Would you want your company to be featured on “Undercover Boss”?

“Undercover Boss” Trailer with Larry O’Donnell

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10 thoughts on “Undercover Boss

  1. Daniel Wilkes

    If this is real, it’s one of the most touching things that I have ever watched on TV. The young lady that he promoted and whos family he helped really broke my heart. The other time when he showed his daughter with Autism and refered back to the lady who gave the young women who was giving the garbage lady a bottle of POP. Then the guy with Kidney problems and how hard he worked. Then I can tell you I wish that I worked for this man.

  2. Deborah Rudy

    You make a lot of good points. However, I’m going to hold off on deciding if this is a PR bonanza for the companies involved until I see Sunday’s upcoming episode. The promo’s at the end of last week’s show certainly didn’t depict Hooters in a very favorable light. Watching that manager force the waitresses to play his “reindeer games” by licking up food off their plates if they wanted to get off work early turned my stomach.

  3. Noah Graff

    Yes. I thought that too. However, giant corporations, and most businesses for that matter don’t do things like this just because they think it would be interesting or fun. It’s all about whether this will make them more money or not in the long run. Take a look at this puff piece interview done with the CEO of the company, O’Donnel’s boss. You can tell that the channel actually run by Waste Management. He says “it’s all about the people….blah blah blah.” Of course what about the Jerk manager? 🙂 Check this out.

  4. Miles Free

    Noah, I think that is not so much about advertising (Does the guy who takes your trash or cleans your porta potties really need to advertise? I think not.) But I believe that there are “Bosses” who really want to share the magic of what their companies do. I use the term “the existential joy of ____” (enter your job title in the blank) to describe this. To outsiders, working in a machine shop is oily, noisy, dirty work. The craftsmen-professionals I deal with in our industry see it differently. They are making parts that are saving lives, making cars and planes go, or safely moving energy around. Waste Management wasn’t advertising, they were showing the very human “Existential Joys” of performing needed (but unglamorous) services to their customers. Yes, theirbusiness is picking up litter, picking up trash, and cleaning porta potties. They showed that they (and their people) have pride in their work, earn respect from their customers, and that even the guy who cleans the toilets and chases litter around the landfill has dignity and is worthy of our respect. It’s not advertising, it’s giving us a peek into the joy of their work. I applaud Waste Management for helping us realize that their brand is really people helping people.

  5. Noah Graff

    Well I guess their advertising worked on you Miles.:) You are applauding them for helping you realize how great their brand is. Bottom line, the company doesn’t do this for fun. They do it so they can make money. They may feel that treating their employees better helps the company make money. So the show helps them accomplish that too. Of course they don’t need TV cameras to go undercover. Don’t be naive. If you watch the interview I posted above with the CEO it becomes more clear that it has a PR agenda.

  6. Deborah Rudy

    I think there’s truth in what both of you are saying. A PR agenda? Definitely. Not that there’s anything wrong with it (to coin a Seinfeldism). That’s the beauty of capitalism. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  7. lloyd

    I found the show moving and interesting but I am cynical enough to know I was being manipulated. But so what, American Idol, Biggest Loser, Dancing With the Stars all play me and I willingly accept it because they do it so well.
    From a media point of view Undercover Boss is quite important. This is product placement plus. This last show was worth millions to the Waste Management brand. For no money(maybe) WM got huge ratings behind the Super Bowl where companies paid $2.3 million per spot. I don’t know if there was a quid pro quo with CBS and WM but if this format strikes a nerve we will see a raft of similar programming. CNBC did a quai documentary on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Did Time Inc pay? I would be shocked if there wasn’t some form of remuneration even if it was barter. But it was pretty good programming nevertheless.

  8. Mike Duffin

    My wife and I watched the show and found it very entertaining. I remarked that a “boss undercover” could never happen in a small business where bosses usually work with the guys on the floor and often know all the personal and family stuff. This appeared to be a unique happening in the corporate world because it WAS for a big company like WMI.
    Joshua Alston, columnist for Newsweek, wrote a disparaging column about the show – probably because he thinks all bosses and corporations have no soul. He remarks, “We can all agree on one thing: CEOs are losers.” Well, Joshua, that’s not the norm in the small businesses I see and know in the precision machining industry. Maybe this is evidence of another gap in society, you know like gender and generation gaps. We have a business gap separating big and small businesses. Most entertainers, reporters, teachers and politicos see only the big business culture and have no idea how much fun can be had working in a small enterprise. Anyway, I sure plan to watch the next episode of Undercover Boss, even if Hooter’s food is not very good!


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