REPRESENTATIONS OF WORK IN TV ADS

Fordism

A mid-1990s ad for Ford Motor Company opens with a still photograph of Henry Ford, nominated, on the screen, his own scratchy voice-over apparently doing the narrating. It sounds as if it is part of a speech, though when and where it might have been given remain a mystery to the casual viewer.
"I will build a motorcar for the great multitudes, constructed of the best materials by the best men and women to be hired. Any person making a good salary will be able to own one. And enjoy, with his family, the blessings of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces." The ad concludes with Ford's image, with the following on the screen: "We live by these WORDS today. They are THE Vision behind everything we do throughout the world."
Fordism is a term coined by Antonio Gramsci and used by critical analysts to designate a specifically 20th century corporate regime of mechanized production coupled with the mass consumption of standardized products. On the production side, this approach to mechanized production brought with it the deskilling of work (see Harry Braverman) along with the bureaucratic massification of work conditions and experiences. In turn, expanding production demanded expanded consumption, which required higher incomes. Hence, the symbolic significance of Ford's famous offer of $5 a day to workers who would put up with the alienated, regimented work conditions at Ford Motors. While Ford's narrative in this commercial paints an overly rosy picture of work in his plants, his statement does make clear Fordism's reliance on a "good salary" to permit the mass ownership of cars. Notice how Ford had already shifted the rhetoric of leisure time, compared to his capitalist predecessors a mere 20 years earlier, from laziness to pleasure. Satisfying employment, a good salary and ownership of a car bring, says the voice of Ford, "the blessings of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces."

But Fordism also meant corporate bureaucratization as the largest firms sought to rationalize all conditions of managing production and consumption. Eventually, after seven decades of Fordism, the costs of Fordism had begun to haunt it. Workers eventually found the homogenization of work in the pursuit of standardization a disheartening and unfair way of life. Somewhat ironically, it was the very homogenization of labor itself that eventually seeded the success of labor organizers. In the 1930s, the UAW succeeded in its efforts to gain recognition as the bargaining agent for autoworkers. Over the following decades, union labor increased labor costs, and in conjunction with the breakdown of an aging industrial infrastructure and competition from the Japanese auto industry, a new era has emerged known variously as flexible accumulation, Postfordism, globalization, deindustrialization, etc. Postfordism refers to an economy based on flexible accumulation. Stuart Hall (1991, 58) characterizes Postfordism as follows:

"a shift to the new 'information technologies;' more flexible, decentralized forms of labor process and work organization; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of the 'sunrise,' computer-based industries; the hiving off or contracting out of functions and services; a greater emphasis on choice and product differentiation, on marketing, packaging, and design, on the 'targeting' of consumers by lifestyle, taste and culture rather than by categories of social class; a decline in the proportion of the skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of the service and white-collar classes and the 'feminization' of the work force; an economy dominated by the multinationals, with their new international division of labor and their greater autonomy from nation-state control; and the 'globalization' of the new financial markets, linked by the communications revolution."

Here is a generic pictorial representation of the Fordist assembly line signified by an early stage of steel-based industrialization driven by muscle-assisted machine labor.

Ford's pictorial representation of the Postfordist assembly line stresses high tech robotic precision and the minimization of human labor.

In contrast to the stage of Fordism, this succeeding stage of labor relations is characterized by the key practice of flexibility -- why assemble a massive complex like Henry Ford's River Rouge plant with all phases of the production process controlled or monopolized by Ford, when the work can be outsourced to low wage and non-union areas or temps hired? It is interesting then that Ford today, in trying to appeal to its history, implies an eternal character to the stage of Fordism. Executives at Ford, like those at General Motors, know that is not the case. Just look at how they are approaching the forthcoming negotiations with the UAW where the key issue is the outsourcing of product parts. But, of course, while taking a hardline on outsourcing may be good business, it doesn't make for very good public relations.