Brooks Butler Hays is a freelance writer in Washington DC. His first book, “Balls on the Lawn,” is an irreverent ode to lawn sports (available spring 2014). You can find him blogging at Art&Sport. His writing typically covers less serious material; he promises more fart jokes next time.
If you’re a pizza eater, you may also be a patron of the arts.
That is if you order from Domino’s—you know, the second largest pizza chain in the world, the one without Peyton Manning as a spokesperson. “Our pizza sucks.” Yeah, that one.
Earlier this year, Dominos’ erratic marketing strategy took another strange turn when, via a Super Bowl commercial, the company proffered its pizza makers and delivery drivers as artists-in-training. That’s right. You might have thought your lukewarm pepperoni pan pizza was being delivered by some no-future teenage stoner. You thought wrong. A little Van Gogh-in-waiting is pounding your never-frozen dough right now (be careful, that mushroom kind of looks like an ear…).
“It really bugs me that people think that I’m just a pizza maker or just a pizza boy,” Diego Garcia complains in an online video posted as part of the “Handmade by Domino’s” campaign.
Of course, Diego isn’t just a pizza maker. He’s also a human being—a living, breathing young man with normal wants, needs, desires, interests, and insecurities. He’s probably a little bit like you. Diego is also one of some four million American workers who earn minimum wage or less. Many of Diego’s colleagues make less, in fact, somewhere around five bucks an hour, as they fall under one of several minimum wage exemptions (tipped employees, full-time students, certain disabled workers, and others).
But Diego’s not poor. He’s got his art. Remember?
When Diego isn’t plying West Texans with mass-market pizzas, he can be found spray-painting colorful graffiti-like murals on city walls or working towards his art degree at nearby University of Texas El Paso. Living the newest American dream.
In the main Super Bowl commercial (it’s supplemented by others on Domino’s site), which now receives regular airtime on national television, Diego is joined by Crystal, a Dominos store general manager and avid watercolorist, and Chris, delivery driver and glassblower. As they tell it, working at Dominos is a swell compliment to their artistic lives—each place, a nurturing home for their skills as craftsmen and craftswomen.
Like Diego, Crystal is miffed at how she, as an employee of Domino’s, is perceived by the outside world. “A lot people think I’m just a punk teenager making pizzas, but that’s just not true,” Crystal tells the camera, “I also has a degree in watercolor.”
The commercial didn’t exactly sway my pizza allegiances; the chance of me ordering Domino’s in the next several months sits at a steady four percent. But the commercial did make me uneasy. Even as I mocked them, I recognized the insecurities of Diego and Crystal.
All through college, I soaked through countless blue button-downs hustling trays of butter-drowned salmon filets out of a profanity-filled restaurant kitchen and onto the tables of hungry tourists and local senior citizens. As I handed them their dirty Stoli martinis “up with an extra twist,” I felt a near-constant need to explain my situation—a need to help them understand that I wasn’t just some punk kid waiting tables, that I was a history student or a recent graduate or working to become a writer.
And I got the sense that my customers were as relieved to hear me reveal these things, as I was to tell them—after all, we all want to believe that the kid checking us out at the grocery store has got a bright, bright future.
This exchange, between my customers and me, left me assuaged of my shame—and them absolved of their guilt—but in its aftermath, I’d feel almost instantaneous remorse.
I felt guilt, shame, and remorse for the same reasons I now feel disdain for Diego and Crystal. In validating their occupational anxieties, they—as I did too—create a hierarchy: between those that are just a pizza maker and those that aren’t just some kid making pizza. In other words, making minimum wage or less is something to be embarrassed about, ashamed of, unless you’ve got some sweet art projects, or an unfinished novel, you’re working on when you get home.
It’s true that Diego and Crystal are easy targets, and also sympathetic ones. Their motivation is simple and understandable enough: they wanted some extra money and some validation. We all do. Still they willingly played puppets in Dominos’ little capitalist morality play, and they can take the heat.
Dominos’ motivation is no secret. Like any other major corporation, Domino’s wants to grow profits. They want to sell as many pizzas as possible and make as much money as possible by maximizing revenues and minimizing costs.
But Domino’s seems to recognize in the pizza-ordering public the same thing I saw in the eyes of my customers—some buried uneasiness over the exchange between low-wage earners and consumers. If we can’t keep these sorts of transactions entirely anonymous, executives must think, we can at least make things appear as peachy as possible. Ignorance is bliss after all, and blindly happy customers tend to spend a lot more money.
This isn’t a Marxist call to arms or rant against franchise food, only a reminder that our humanity calls on us to confront that shame and uneasiness head on, not veil it with hyperbolic veneer and extra cheese.
Next time you order from Domino’s or go to a gas station or visit a McDonalds, just remember, for every Diego there are just as many men and women who have been delivering pizzas, pumping gas, cleaning bathrooms, and flipping hamburgers for five, ten, fifteen years—college dropouts, single moms, drug peddlers, addicts, racists, religious fanatics, larpers—none of them pursuing art degrees.