“Some Good Clean Fun” – Humor in an Advertising – Part 3

Porn, Nationality and Power: Jokes at Keys
At Keys, humor acted to simultaneously subvert and uphold particular, dominant ways
of knowing within the organization. This paradox is illustrated by drawing on some of
the humorous emails gathered during the study. In addition, it appeared that humor
generated something of an excess, beyond the control-resistance dualism. Humor
appeared to be something more.
As mentioned above, humor was part of the management-employee relationship, albeit
in a complex way. It might be assumed that the informal “teasing” of managers, via
publicly exchanged email lists, posed a threat to the authority of Keys’s managers.
Indeed, any overt display of this authority would quickly be parodied on the email lists by
the rest of the organization. This was clear when, for example, the creative director, one
of the most senior people in the organization, sent an email that requested the downstairs
kitchen to be kept clean. He asked that people would place dirty dishes in the
dishwasher. This simple request prompted a number of email responses; someone replied
that the same holds for the upstairs kitchen, which was followed by a developer replying
that the same goes for his kitchen at home. Another developer wrote: “Subject: RE: Same
goes for my kitchen …also if someone would like to come and finish building my kitchen
(still no working tops or cupboards or sink) then I’d be mega appreciative, oh and then I’d
have surfaces to clean and weekends free… thanking muchly”. Thus a simple request
from management was recirculated and parodied, defusing its seriousness. Incidents like
this were frequent, and drawing on aspects of the literature presented above, may lead
one to conclude that they represented a subversion of management control (Kunda,
1992). However, the story at Keys was more complex. Senior managers themselves
regularly participated in using the email lists for sending around humorous emails; the
design and production directors were among those most active, contributing 8% of the
humorous emails sent between them (and representing only 4% of the staff). As an
example, in preparation for a weekly staff meeting one senior manager wrote: “Please try
to furnish me with things to say at the weekly staff meeting or stare in horror as I blunder
on in front of you for yet another week…10.45 round the downstairs meeting area,
cheers, MD”. The nine board members, who made up a fifth of the staff, sent out almost
a fifth of the total number of humorous emails collected.
Interestingly, this ethos of being funny was by no means counterproductive in terms of
the goals of the organization and management’s prerogative in generating profit. What
Cooper (2005) describes as the sharing of visual and interactive humor, via email, was a
useful activity, particularly given that a proportion of these emails featured recent
creations from other, competing, advertising agencies. Using the email lists to
demonstrate ones’ imagination, creativity and general sense of humor was often
tantamount to carrying out market research on behalf of the firm, research which is then

passed along to one’s colleagues via the joke emails being studied here (Montouri, 2003).
In addition, as noted above, the frame-breaking role of humor in generating ideas, is
valuable to creative industries such as advertising (Montuori, 2003). In addition, online
porn sites were recognized as being useful for observing and learning about latest
innovations in web technology, and so were helpful in developing client proposals. At
Keys therefore, playing online games (see Figure 2), surfing the Internet for funny ads,
and other aspects of work life that are often considered by more traditional organizations
as mere ‘time wasting’ (Sharma and Gupta, 2004), were not only encouraged, but
frequently carried out by management. In summary then, while humor was used to
undermine authority, it was also accepted and used by those in authority (Collinson,
2002). The relation between humor and control was complex and ambivalent, as was
the relation between humor and gender, discussed next.
In terms of the enactment of gender stereotypes at Keys, email humor played an
important role. As mentioned previously, aspects of life that would traditionally be seen
as taboo within work organizations, in particular within written communications by staff
members, were frequently parodied. These aspects include religion, sexuality,
homelessness, drugs, alcohol abuse and the personal lives of Keys employees and
suppliers. The result of this was that much of the humor that appeared on the Keys
mailing list could be interpreted as offensive by “normal” standards (Kuipers, 2006). In
analyzing the data, we authors disagreed on whether or not many of these jokes could be
considered offensive, which indicates the difficulty in deciding normal standards of
political correctness. Examples of gendered humor include a link sent by one illustrator
to a “G.I. Joe Erotica Fan Fiction Archive” where fans wrote their own G.I. Joe stories
with erotic endings. In another example, a link to a company which sells “fake vagina g-
strings with peeholes” was sent around. An illustrator forwarded an email with that
featured the web address: www.whorepresents.com, and commented upon how
disappointing it was that this merely led to an agency that represents actors. In these
ways, women were sexualized and this aspect was parodied and made fun of. In addition,
male gender stereotypes, including that of a homeless man and a new father, were
mocked. For example, a Christmas card sent around by the production director showed a
cartoon version of a well-known Christmas carol. In the cartoon, Santa Claus was
replaced by Tramp-o-Claus who bellowed a song to the tune of ‘Santa Claus is Coming
to Town’ about the various disgusting ways in which he planned to interfere with the
traditional family Christmas festivities. This is shown in Figure 3. Instead of mince pies,
Tramp-o-claus requests that the waiting children would leave out porn magazines and
cigarettes on Christmas Eve.
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Insert Figure 3 around here
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Santa Claus is thus reworked as a dirty, homeless man and this stereotype is mocked in
doing so. Traditional father roles were parodied; when one of the design directors
became a father, an illustrator wrote the following email to all employees: “Suzuki
scooter + helmet hardly used. one careful owner. 500EUR. Ono”. The implication was
that impending fatherhood would render the design director old and boring.
Gender humor was often inscribed by mocking of other aspects of identity, including
nationality. Excerpts from an episode of a TV cartoon series which made fun of Irish

females for typically praying and having lots of children, shown in Figure 4, were sent
around by the most junior production employee, despite the fact that one of the design
directors was Irish.
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Insert Figure 4 around here
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This form of humor was turned around on the researcher, a German man, when an email
was sent around featuring a picture of him with a collection of porn magazines which had
been photoshopped into his hands; making fun of the stereotypical relation of Germans to
porn. Similarly, on announcing his move to the Netherlands, the researcher was the butt
of a flurry of email jokes, culminating in the “goodbye email” which announced that the
researcher was moving on to a life of prostitutes. These examples highlight the ways in
which particular views gender stereotypes: Irish mothers, Dutch prostitutes and male
German porn consumers were articulated through national stereotypes in their humorous
parodying by staff at Keys (Butler, 1990; 1993).
Politically incorrect humor reached such levels at one point that the author of an email
whose content was not smutty, offensive or of dubious taste, excused himself by adding
“some good clean fun” in the subject line. In addition, making fun of individual staff
members had become part of using the email lists. Being funny appeared more important
than showing respect or sensitivity for your co-workers and peers, even in accordance
with traditional social norms. However, there were limits to this, as was illustrated when
the managing director put a stop to offensive humor directed at his wife. The tradition
in Keys, when a staff member had a birthday, was that one of the illustrators would create
a digital birthday card, and send a link around by email so that everyone could write a
birthday wish on it. Working on such a card one day, the illustrator came across an
“alternative” dictionary of peoples’ names. He found that the managing director’s wife’s
name was defined as a person who liked to have group sex with random people. This
was duly written on the birthday card. It was not known what passed between the M.D.
and this illustrator, but he never designed another card. In this case, therefore, it
appeared that the operation of humor was, in addition to being inscribed by norms of
gender and nationality, inextricable from questions of power and status within the
organization. This further complexifies the way in which humor was enacted at Keys.
Interestingly however, in the days and months that followed, the incident remained
“alive” in the email jokes that were sent around on the mailing lists. In one case, images
of the chastised illustrator were distributed, in which he was shown in a new profession
as a t-shirt designer, the implication being that he was shortly to be fired. Another email
showed an online diagram of how he might “industrialize” these birthday cards, again in
his future, post-Keys career. Other jokes discussed who the next candidate for the role of
designing offensive birthday cards might be. This continuous movement of humor,
even beyond attempts by the M.D. to stop it, indicates that in fact, humor was somehow
beyond a consideration of control versus resistance; humor appeared to generate
something of an excess, a spilling over and out of these categories. Likewise, even where
humor was inscribed by categories of nationality and gender, as discussed above, even
this necessitated a continual movement. At one point, a spate of emails were sent around
that were considered sexist, such as those described above. These included one from the
planning director entitled, “Fun for the boys”. Two new email lists were created: one

called “boys@keys.com” and a second entitled “girls@keys.com”. These were for the
purpose of avoiding an audience that might find the content of such emails offensive.
Interestingly, however, the boys-only email list was rarely used and eventually became
obsolete (the researcher was not party to the girls-only list). Both examples indicate that
something beyond traditional conceptions of humor was at work at Keys; an alternative
“norm”, one of continuous movement, appeared central.