“Some Good Clean Fun” – Humor in an Advertising

This paper is based on participant observation at Keys, a young, trendy organization
located in a run-down but increasingly fashionable part of a large European city. Keys is
in the business of cutting edge creative work: ideas take primacy. The working day
involves much hanging out on bean-bags chatting to colleagues, or trying to beat the high
score on the office pinball machine. Most of the team are comfortable with digital
technology, graphic design and the Internet. At Keys, a lot of time is spent sending group
emails to one’s colleagues, emails that contain jokes, weird images and links to online
videos: always new, always fresh, always funny. This funnyness forms the focus of this
paper: at Keys, a particular flavor of humor persisted in the emails that circulated. At
first, there appeared to be few boundaries: jokes could be politically incorrect: sexist,
racist, homophobic and potentially hurtful, as long as they were new and they made
people laugh. On closer examination, this “boundaryless” humor appeared inscribed by
very specific forms of control, including gender stereotypes and managerial authority.
Beginning this investigation, it is helpful to examine what has already been written on the
interaction of humor and control, a growing area of interest in organization studies
(Bolton and Houlihan, 2009; Fineman, 2003). For the sake of presentation, we isolate
two approaches to the topic for discussion: the first focuses on the potential for humor to
subvert forms of dominance within organizations, and the second advocates humor as an
important means of asserting control in the workplace. We find that presenting the two
contradictory approaches side-by-side is useful: it highlights the inescapable ambiguity of
humor as a concept, a point we return to later. Next, we attempt to unpack this
paradoxical humor which is at once subversive, instrumental and, finally, ambivalent,
by introducing phenomenologist Judith Butler’s work, aspects of which helped us to
make sense of the story of Keys that follows this introduction.

Humor as Subversion?
growing body of work has examined the use of humor in workplaces to critique and
subvert dominant forms of power (see Westwood and Rhodes 2007 for a useful
overview). Authors describe how humor, satire and cynicism can be used by, for
example, lower status members of organizations to signal disenchantment (Collinson
2002), or to distance selves from control strategies employed by management (Collinson,
1988; Fleming and Sewell, 2002; Hodgson, 2005; Kunda, 1992). The idea is that the use
of humor opens up a space for critique; the “interruption of the everyday by jokes” often
allows something that is “routinely disallowed, to be seen or spoken of” (O’Doherty,
2007: 184). In this way, humor acts as something of an alternative space, an “anti-rite”
that shows up the sheer contingency of various social norms, including managerial
control and other forms of domination in contemporary organizations (Critchley, 2007:
A number of authors have lately drawn on Butler’s idea of parody to show how aspects of
organizations can be “queered” by humorous forms of subversion (Hodgson, 2005;
Kenny, 2009; Parker, 2002). Queering is based on Butler’s re-reading of the Lacanian
Real, in which she shows how the laughter provoked by drag artists when parodying the
notion of “femaleness”, highlights the inescapable groundlessness of certain ways of

thinking about gender in contemporary society. For Butler, such “subversive laughter”
flags up the ways in which “the original, the authentic and the real are themselves
constituted as effects” (Butler, 1990: 186). Examples of this include the UK TV
programme The Office, which parodies management control (Tyler and Cohen, 2008),
and recent documentary film The Yes Men, which parodies the World Trade Organization
and its control over global issues (Kenny, 2009).
In addition to parodying managerial control structures, studies have highlighted how
humor can be used as means to relativize power, and poke fun at dominant and
oppressive gender discourses in operation. Indeed, a central focus of Tyler and Cohen’s
(2008) study of The Office involves the programme’s parodying of gender norms.
Rhodes and Pullen (2007) explore the ways in which gendered stereotypes play out in the
cartoon The Simpsons. They argue that the grotesque realist representation of, for
example, Monty Burns’ thin and sickly frame, and Homer Simpson’s excessive belly,
make us smile while showing up the fragility of masculine stereotypes. By representing
and thus imitating an “original”, dominant conceptions of masculinity, The Simpsons
“defamiliariz(es) the mundane”, makes it ridiculous and leaves it open to question
(Westwood and Rhodes, 2007: 5). Johnston, Mumby and Westwood (2007) discuss how
humor can help to maintain particular gendered hegemonies, while exploring its
potential for opening up other, alternative ways of knowing, and of laughing. In
summary then, humor is seen to have potential for subverting and critiquing dominant
forms of power.
However, drawing on other studies from the field of organization research shows that
humor is frequently advocated as tool by which the very forms of power discussed
above; gender norms and managerial control, are in fact sustained and reinforced. Bolton
and Houlihan (2009) present an overview of different firms’ attempts to use “packaged
fun” to engender a sense of happiness and belonging in employees (2009: 557). In other
studies, humor is shown to be a useful means by which managers and leaders may
influence their employees (Greatbatch and Clark, 2003). Cooper (2005) discusses the
management of change within organizations, and argues that managers can use humor to
convince employees of the benefit of proposed changes, “if humor induces positive
affect, the target will be influenced more easily” (2005: 773). Thus, she argues, humor
should help to reinforce managerial control over change processes. Managers can also
utilize humor to foster a coherent organizational identity. Kahn (1989) discusses how
“insider jokes” and other forms of humor can be deployed to develop the boundaries
necessary for establishing and maintaining shared norms; humor can help to separate
those who belong from those who do not. Relevant to this paper, Andriopoulos and Gotsi
(2001) and Montouri (2003) argue that in the creative industries, humor can be fostered
by management in order to promote creative work. Because, it is argued, creative
thought is stimulated by the destabilization of order, and the active dismantling of
“assumptions, givens, traditions, pushing boundaries and moving out of comfort zones”,
then the frame-breaking potential of humor to highlight alternative ways of thinking can
help to improve productivity, where the product involves the creation of new ideas
(Montuori, 2003: 242). Thus, just as Critchley (2007) sees the frame-breaking potential
of humor as a medium for critique, others view it as a means by which management can
control aspects of work life including organizational change, culture and creative output
(Bolton and Houlihan, 2009; Kahn, 1989; Montouri, 2003). Just as humor is seen to

reinforce managerial prerogative, so it is with other forms of control such as norms of
gender in operation (Johnston, Mumby and Westwood, 2007). Humor is frequently
used to reinforce the dominance of patriarchical ways of knowing, as noted by Critchley
For these reasons, there is little to be said about what humor “is” in terms of its relation
to control; the above contrasting of two strands within organization studies literature
highlights the inescapable ambivalence of the concept (Collinson, 2002; Warren and
Fineman, 2007). There is little that is inherently critical about humor, indeed little
inherent to the notion at all. As Rhodes (2002) notes in his discussion of South Park’s
use of humor in critiquing global organizations such as Starbucks, what humor does is
to enable a temporary reversal of particular hegemonies such as capitalism. He draws on
Bahktin’s concept of carnival to show that while humor acts to continually relativize
power and to suggest alternatives, it is finally ambivalent (Rhodes, 2002). Relevant for
this paper, Kuipers (2006) discusses the ambivalent role of online humor in challenging
norms of ethnicity, arguing that Internet-based jokes using ethnic stereotypes can
function to normalize these stereotypes in some cases, while simultaneously fanning the
flames of moral outrage in others. Butler (1990) discusses this final ambivalence of
humor, noting that parodic laughter can lose its critical edge when it becomes subsumed
within the political structure it aims to critique. She draws on Foucault’s idea that
critique can in fact provide the comforting illusion that power is open to question and to
alteration, when it is often simply a reinforcement (Foucault, 1990). Specifically, Butler
discusses the potential for parody to be commoditized, “subversive performances always
run the risk of becoming deadening clichés through their repetition and, most
importantly, through their repetition within commodity culture where ‘subversion’ carries
market value” (1990: xxi). This idea of humor as both subversive, and commercially
saleable, forms the focus of Parker’s (2007) discussion of how workplace humor
becomes commercialized by the manufacturers of office mugs and stickers that declare
“subversive” messages about employment and business. A further example is Kavanagh
and O’Sullivan’s (2007) examination of the sale of subversive humor in advertising
campaigns. These ideas on the relation between organizational humor and control were
helpful for us in making sense of life at Keys. Before introducing them, it is useful to
return to Judith Butler’s work and unpack relevant ideas in more depth.

More Humor Articles

Back to Top