A potent memory from one of the more unedifying periods of my life: regularly working late enough to find myself too exhausted or disinclined to cook, completing my commute with minutes to spare before the nearest shop within any reasonable distance closed, and traipsing up and down the aisles, attempting to coax out of hiding – or else will into existence – something more appetising than a microwaveable meal. Usually, this performance ended in succumbing to the most yellow-stickered curry.
Sometimes, though, I would refuse this miserable end. I would stoically scour the remaining available takeaway options across the delivery apps and drop more than is advisable on a meal. It would invariably arrive lukewarm after midnight; I’d feel too tired to stay awake, but also completely unable to sleep. Then my alarm for the following morning would sound and I would begin this sordid little ritual all over again.
I was recently transported back to that time by an advert. An Uber Eats rider stands in a harshly illuminated corridor, holding aloft a bag apparently containing a delivery of Subway sandwiches. A slogan reads “When your day is long, go Footlong”. I stared at it for a while. The clumsy wordplay, the ironic defeatism, the Subway sandwich as the epitome of something only someone completely ground down by their day could believe was a palatable option … Ah, crushing resignation, my old friend. I feel compelled to spend at least £10 on you again.
At some point, a significant segment of advertising in the UK and the US started self-consciously aping the sardonic disaffection and dejection that many of us feel about grimly submitting to life under contemporary capitalism. A shoe company predicts a future without retirement and does not offer salvation, but instead footwear suited to perennial toil. An online estate agent mocks the idea of conceiving of a home as anything other than an investment opportunity. A tech company boasts of how its mobile phones facilitate the penetration of work into your every waking hour. A website builder appropriates Dolly Parton’s most famous song to nod to a “5 to 9” culture of working on a myriad of jobs and hustles.
What vision of the world is conjured by this kind of advertising? It’s hardly an optimistic one. It’s as though capitalism no longer feels the need to promote itself through advertising – its public face – nor maintain a pretence that it can deliver an appealing or even tolerable way of life for many. Instead, these adverts affect a knowing posture, as if they, too, share our dissatisfactions with the modern world, all the while heavily implying its conditions are as inevitable as drizzle in British summer time.
The Uber Eats ads are likely very effective; plastered all over public transport, where dog-tired commuters will be most suggestible to the charms of a sugar-crash-inducing 12-inch meatball marinara. A quick audit of the interiors of the buses, trains and trams that serve Britain’s cities reveals a unifying theme. Alongside Uber Eats’ competitors in the takeaway market (Just Eat, Deliveroo, Getir), a huge amount of the adverts pummelling you on your way into the office seem to be for minimal effort “meal kit” services (Gousto, HelloFresh, Mindful Chef) or else products that replace the need to bother with the faff of a meal entirely (Huel, Soylent). Deprived of the requisite leisure time to cook for pleasure or eat, we must instead find ways of efficiently optimising our sustenance.
Perhaps the most miserable thing about the Uber Eats campaign is the way it’s fronted by one of the company’s many employees who aren’t really employees at all. One obvious example of those forced to organise their life around long, late-night hours that are not conducive to eating, are those contractors who make up the gig economy – a realm of the modern labour market in which the widespread use of “self-employment” means workers are deprived of the benefits and stability that everyone deserves. Research published by the TUC estimates that around 4.4 million people (nearly 15% of working adults) perform “platform work” in this insecure sector. That this has more than doubled since 2016 means it’s not particularly difficult to imagine a scenario in which an Uber Eats rider clocks off hungry at a time when their options are limited to relying on another delivery rider to bring them an insubstantial meal. And then that next rider finds themselves in the same position. And so on.
There’s something more than a little worrying about an advertising culture that doesn’t even try to delude us into imagining a fantastic future, but instead reflects the grim realities of the present. That said, defeated resignation can be lucrative for the advertisers. It’s in precisely these conditions that the human mind encounters the Subway sandwich at its most desirable – and regards the idea of having one couriered to the front door late at night a prudent financial decision. So, what are we having tonight?