Adam Johnson Worker's Rights

Chasing Clicks Through Ad Money, Media Does PR for Amazon While Ignoring Human Costs of ‘Prime Day Deals’

This year, like every year, Amazon workers’ attempts to draw attention to their exploitative conditions were largely drowned out by hundreds of fawning PR press releases thinly disguised as articles about how “consumers” could “take advantage” of “amazing deals” offered by Amazon on “Prime Day.”
An Amazon Prime delivery van in downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Adam Johnson / The Real News Network

Every year, America’s corporate media celebrates the coming of that most sacred and deal-laden of holidays, so-called Amazon “Prime Day.”  The media fanfare around Prime Day is such a staple that it has become a perennial strategic rallying point for Amazon workers trying to draw attention to Amazon’s low wages, unsafe working conditions, and aggressive anti-union corporate culture. These are year-round problems that ramp up to 11 during the taxing and brutal period before, during, and after Prime Day, when workers are pressured into long hours, exposed to high temperatures, and given impossible performance metrics to hit.  

This year, per usual, workers’ attempts to draw attention to these conditions were largely drowned out by hundreds of fawning PR press releases thinly disguised as articles about how “consumers” could “take advantage” of “amazing deals” offered by Amazon on Prime Day. Many of the same outlets publishing these puff pieces, and generating sizable revenue through so-called “click-through” arrangements with Amazon and other retailers in the process, have a glaring conflict of interest when reporting on Prime Day, which makes their silence regarding labor actions on or around Prime Day that much more conspicuous and noteworthy.

The most egregious offender this year was none other than the paper of record, The New York Times, which published a torrent of ads for Amazon posing as articles via its “Wirecutter” vertical in the week leading up to Prime Day. Times readers were fed sober and critical reportage such as “The Best Prime Day 2023 Deals That Are Still Kicking,” “Why Wirecutter Parents and Kids Love Magna-Tiles,” “The 50 Best Prime Day Tech Deals,” “A MacBook Air, Open to Reveal a Colorful Desktop,” “This MacBook Air Is $200 Off for Prime Day, the Lowest Price We’ve Seen,” “Target Circle Week 2023: Best Prime Day Deals From Target,” “Best Amazon Prime Day Deals of 2023,” “The Best Amazon Prime Day Deals of 2023,” “The 29 Best Prime Day Laptop and Computer Deals,” “The 12 Best Prime Day Vacuum Deals: Dyson, Shark, and Roomba,” “The 19 Best Prime Day Headphone and Earbud Deals,” “The 30 Best Prime Day Gaming Deals: Video Games, Headsets, and More,” and so on. Dozens of such articles can be found on their webpage.

Nowhere in its output did The New York Times cover the dozens of labor actions targeting Prime Day that same week, nor has the outlet published any investigative reporting detailing Amazon’s labor abuse since 2021.

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According to The New York Times 2022 investor report, the company’s “Wirecutter” product “generates affiliate referral revenue (revenue generated by offering direct links to merchants in exchange for a portion of the sale price upon completion of a transaction) in addition to advertising and subscription revenue.” 

The Times is parlaying its journalistic credibility, developed over decades, into what is effectively an advertising vertical—a fact the casual reader could easily miss given the passing disclosure they offer, which lets readers know in 11-point font that “when you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.”

But the Times, of course, is not alone. ABC NewsNBC NewsCBS News, and CNN all ran dozens of humiliating Amazon commercials about what “deals” consumers could get without doing any reporting on this week’s pickets and walkouts—let alone the labor abuses and low wages that spurred them. 

CBS News also has a click-through vertical called “CBS Essentials,” which ran countless “articles” promoting Prime Day. One has to squint to see the disclaimer that CBS “may receive commissions from some links to products in this page.” CNN engages in a similarly confusing and venal practice. The outlet’s “CNN Underscored” vertical spams its readers with dozens of veiled Amazon ads boosting click-through revenue. Admittedly a bit more apparent than that of CBS or The New York Times, the outlet’s disclaimer reads “when you buy through links on our site, we may earn a commission.” CNN also did not report on any Prime Day-related pickets, or other labor actions for that matter. 

NPR got in on the act, too, publishing a promo piece for Prime Day titled “Are Amazon Prime Day Deals Worth It? 5 Things to Know.” The nonprofit news outlet did have the decency to add a disclaimer at the end of the article noting that “Amazon is among NPR’s financial supporters.” However (you may be noticing a theme here), NPR also did not do any reporting on Prime Day-related pickets or other labor actions. 

This isn’t to say these outlets never report on Amazon labor actions, or report critically on any Amazon labor abuses. But such reporting is exceedingly rare compared to the nonstop, barely disclosed Amazon ads that comprise the vast bulk of their “articles” on the retail giant. The average reader’s interaction with Amazon’s corporate brand isn’t critical, or even neutral: It’s sexy headlines about the “best deals” the company can provide you, the “consumer.” Meanwhile, union activists and labor organizers have to pry, crawl, and practically beg for the occasional write-up about a picket line or allegations of worker abuses and low wages.

There is no shortage of abuses and scandals to cover, either. The Department of Justice is currently investigating whether or not Amazon “engaged in a fraudulent scheme designed to hide the true number of injuries” that take place in its warehouse facilities. Under the leadership of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) is investigating safety conditions at Amazon warehouses. A report conducted by the Strategic Organizing Center—which is supported by unions and affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, the Communications Workers of America, and the United Farmworkers of America— found that, in 2022, “Amazon’s injury rate was 70 percent higher than the rate at non-Amazon warehouses.” Workers have spoken out about egregious abuses, from constant surveillance, breakneck workloads, and unreasonable quotas that break workers down physically and mentally, even notoriously forcing some to urinate in bottles, to vicious union-busting on the part of the company. Amazon has captured the hopes of a labor movement struggling to organize the behemoth company, which is the second-largest private employer in the US and has the power to set standards across industries. 

One rare example of a Prime Day labor action this week that was actually being covered by local media—in this case, Fox 2 Detroit—was itself interrupted by a bizarre Prime Day promo in the middle of the segment. I’m not joking (watch the video below from 0:38-1:38):

Like Death from the Final Destination films, Prime Day promos somehow manage to seek out and find their way into all Amazon-related reporting published on or around July 14, even reports that appear initially to be sympathetic to labor and the plight of Amazon workers.

The widespread, institutionalized conflict of interest created by a business model that relies on retail ad revenue to prop up TV, print, and online news outlets isn’t the sole reason for the media’s overwhelmingly uncritical Amazon reporting, but it is a major contributing factor that makes labor organizers’ jobs that much more difficult. After all, how can one build public sympathy for struggling workers—both at home and overseas—when these workers’ low wages and long hours are behind the “amazing deals” every corporate media outlet extols this time of year? Prime Day is simply presented as an exciting event every year, with no human face or human costs; you just click a button and super cheap cool stuff arrives magically at your doorstep. Asking too many questions about how your stuff got there, or what pressures, environmental costs, and tolls on the body this process entails, is simply too messy—and harmful to media companies’ bottom line—to report.

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Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson hosts the Citations Needed podcast and writes at The Column on Substack. Follow him @adamjohnsonNYC.

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