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Humor in Business and

by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen

44 1
Business as Usual
The Effects of Business as Usual
An Office at “Google”

44 4
Businesses which encourage humor
also suggest:
1. Take Risks. 8. Experiment.

2. Don’t worry about making 9. Take responsibility.


3. Take iniative. 10. Try easier, not harder.

4. Spend energy on solutions. 11. Stay calm.

5. Shoot for total quality. 12. Smile.

6. Don’t worry about breaking

13. Have fun.
(Morreall [2008]: 459)
7. Focus on opportunities. 44 5
How do you encourage
humor in your business?
– Flatten your organization by reducing the levels of

– Allow workers more discretion in making decisions.

– Foster creative thinking.

– Accept employee attitudes, emotions, and suggestions.

– Encourage teamwork and collaboration.

(Morreall [2008]: 458)

44 6
Humor-in-Business Surveys:
• A Robert Hall survey of 100 of the largest
American corporations found that 84 % of
vice presidents and human resource
directors preferred employees with a sense
of humor.

• They concluded that “People with a sense of

humor tend to be more creative, less rigid
and more willing to consider and embrace
new ideas and methods.”
(Morreall [2008]: 459)

44 7
• A Hodge-Cronin survey polling 737
CEOs of major corporations
concluded that 98 % of
respondents said that humor was
important in the conduct of
business, that most executives did
not have enough humor, and that in
hiring they gave preference to
people with a sense of humor.
(Morreall [2008]: 459)
44 8
Match the Slogans with the Products
• “Athlete’s Foot,” “B. O.” “The beer that made Milwaukee
famous,” “The drink that makes a pause refreshing,” “Good to
the last drop,” “Halitosis,” “Knocks Eczema,” “Natures spelled
backwards,” “Say it with flowers,” “The skin you love to
touch,” “Snap, Crackle and Pop,” “VapoRub,” “When it rains, it

• Absorbine Jr., Lifebuoy Soap, Schlitz Beer, Coca Cola, Maxwell

House Coffee, Listerine Mouthwash, Noxema, Serutan,
American Florest Assoc., Woodbury’s Facial Soap, Rice
Krispies, Vicks, Morton Salt

• CREATIVE SPELLINGS: E-Z, Kwik, ReaLemon, Reddi-Wip,

Tastee-Freez, Toys Я Us, While you wait
(Bryson, [2009]: 427-430)

44 9
The Staying Power of Brand Names
• “In nineteen of twenty-two categories, the company that owned
the leading American brand in 1925 still has it today. Examples

– Campbells in soup
– Del Monte in canned fruit
– Gillette in razors
– Ivory in soap
– Kellogg’s in breakfast cereals
– Kodak in film
– Nabisco in cookies
– Sherwin Williams in paint
– Singer in sewing machines
– Wrigleys in chewing gum
(Bryson [2009]: 431)

44 10
Common Nouns vs. Proper Nouns
• Many advertisers are so successful that their product names
ordinary words in the language. Ironically, this is because of
their own advertising campaigns:

• “Kodak as you go.”

• “Thermos is a household word.”
• “Drink Coca Cola.”

• “Because of the confusion, and occasional lack of

fastidiousness on the part of their owners, many dozens of
products have lost their trademark protection, among them
aspirin, linoneum, yo-yo, thermos, cellophane, milk of
magnesia, mimeograph, lanolin, celluloid, dry ice, escalator,
shredded wheat, kerosene and zipper.”
(Bryson [2009]: 433)

44 11
Materialism in America
• “If Greece gave the world philosophy, Britain gave drama,
Austria gave music, Germany gave politics, and Italy gave art,
then America has recently contributed mass-produced and
mass-consumed objects.”

• “In all cultures we buy things, steal things, and hoard things.
From time to time, some of us collect vast amounts of things
such as tulip bulbs, paint drippings on canvases, bits of
minerals. Others collect such stuff as thimbles, shoes, even
libraries of videocassettes.”
(Twitchell [2009]: 454-455)

44 12
• “Materialism does not crowd out spiritualism;
spiritualism is more likely a substitute when
objects are scarce. When we have few things,
we make the next world holy. When we have
plenty, we enchant the objects around us.
The hereafter becomes the here and now.”

• “The Nike swoosh, the Polo pony, the Guess?

Label, the DKNY logo are what consumers are
(Twitchell [2009]: 457)

44 13
The Marketing of the
Sugarplum Fairy and the Nutcracker
• Enid Nemy tells about seven-year-old Mollie Kurshan
who attended “The Nutcracker Suite” at Lincoln
Center and then told her mother:

• “There was a Sugar Plum Fairy and beautiful

costumes, and ‘best of all they stopped in the middle
so you could go shopping.’ The Kurshans now have
a cute little wooden nutcracker, bought at the gift
shop during intermission.”
(Twitchell [12009]: 459)

44 14
Marketing Controls Our Lives
• “Not only are all major museum shows sponsored by corporate
interests, but they all end up in the same spot: the gift shop.”

• “The year is punctuated by extravaganzas from Christmas to

Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day to Halloween”

• “We even know when prices fall: Washington’s birthday, Labor Day,
after Christmas.”

• We also know what kind of candy to expect on certain days: candy

canes, sugar hearts, chocolate, candy corn, and instead of water
breaks, we have coffee breaks, tea time, cocktail hour, and night caps.
(Twitchell [2009]: 460)

44 15
Brand Names & Car Bumper Marketing

• We buy name brands like Hilfiger or Calvin Klein clothing, Paul

Newman popcorn, Jimmy Dean sausages, or Michael Jordan

• On cars we find such bumper stickers as:

– “Shop ‘til you drop.”

– “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
– “People who say money can’t buy happiness, don’t know where to shop.”
– “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”
– “But I can’t be overdrawn! I still have some checks left.”
– I’m spending my grandchildren’s inheritance.”
– “nouveau riche is better than no riche at all.”
– “A woman’s place is in the mall.”
(Twitchell [2009]: 460)
44 16
Products are More Important than People

• One ad features an attractive young couple in bed.

“The man is on top of the woman, presumably
making love to her. However, her face is completely
covered by a magazine, open to a double-page photo
of a car.”

• “The man is gazing passionately at the car. The

copy reads, ‘The ultimate attraction.’”
(Kilbourne [2009]: 467)

44 17
Subliminal Messages
• People say, “I don’t pay attention to ads. I just tune
them out. They have no effect on me.”

• “Much of advertising’s power comes from this belief

that it does not affect us. As Joseph Goebbels said,
“This is the secret of propaganda: those who are to
be persuaded by it should be completely immersed
in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever noticing
that they are being immersed in it.”
(Kilbourne [2009]: 468)

44 18
Products are our friends, and our gods.

• “I once heard an alcoholic joke that Jack Daniels was her most
constant lover.”

• “When I was a smoker, I felt that my cigarettes were my friends.

Advertising reinforces these beliefs so we are twice seduced—by the
ads and by the substances themselves.”

• “Advertising performs much the same function in industrial society as

myth did in ancient societies. It is both a creator and perpetuator of
the dominant values of the culture, the social norms by which most
people govern their behavior. At the very least, advertising helps to
create a climate in which certain values flourish and others are not
reflected at all.”
(Kilbourne [2009]: 469)

44 19
Advertising is a religion
• “Infiniti is an automobile; Hydra Zen is a moisturizer,
and Jesus is a brand of jeans.”

• “Consumerism has become the religion of our time

(with advertising its holy text), but the criticism
usually stops short of what is at the heart of the
comparison. Both advertising and religion share a
belief in transformation.”
(Kilbourne [2009]: 470)

44 20
Advertising can change cultures
• “In 1980 the Gwich’in tribe of Alaska got television, and
therefore massive advertising, for the first time.”

• “They no longer had time to learn ancient hunting methods,

their parents’ language or their oral history.”

• “Legends told around campfires could not compete with

Beverly Hills 90210.”

• “Beaded moccasins gave way to Nike sneakers, and “tundra

tea” to Folger’s instant coffee.”
(Kilbourne [2009]: 470)

44 21
Sun Microsystems
• During interviews of job candidates, Nancy
Hauge, Director of human resources at Sun
Microsystems “notes how soon job
candidates laugh.”

• She watches for how long it takes the

interviewee to find something funny, tell her
something funny, or share their sense of
humor, “because humor is very important to
our corporate culture.”
(Morreall [2008] 459)

44 22
Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations

• The back cover of Crazy Times Call for Crazy

Organizations pictures the author (Tom Peters)
dressed in a gray suit from the waist up, and in loud
orange-print undershorts from the waist down.

• This is followed by the following quote from the

book: “Welcome to a world where imagination is the
source of value in the economy. It’s an insane
world, and in an insane world, sane organizations
make no sense.”
(Morreall [2008]: 460)

44 23
The Grouch Patrol
• One branch of Digital Equipment created the
“Grouch Patrol.”

• Whenever they see a sour face, they make a

bat face.

• To make a bat face, push the tip of your nose

up, flick your tongue in and out quickly, and
make a high-pitched “Eeeee” sound.
(Morreall [2008]: 460)

44 24
Humorous Sales
• The 75-member sales team of IBM’s Inside
Sales Center made a pick-up orchestra, and
recorded their sales in fun ways—by
smashing a gong, or by moving a toy race-
horse around a race track. In the saddles
were pictures of the various sales personnel.

• Within a year their sales figures went up by

30 percent.
(Morreall [2008]: 460)
44 25
• In their Humor at Work, Esther Blumenfield
and Lynne Alpern tell about a group of
women who had a co-worker who would
routinely drop his pencil on the floor so that
he could look under the table at their legs.

• So the ladies used a magic marker to print on

their knees, one letter per kneecap: “HI
(Morreall [2008] 462)
44 26
John Cleese’s Video Arts Company
• In one of his business-training videos, John Cleese (of Monty
Python fame) tells how laughter helps people pay attention,
relax, learn better, and develop a less-defensive attitude.

• In his video entitled, “Meetings, Bloody Meetings” he shows a

meeting in which everything that could go wrong does go

• Employees have to admit that they have made some of these

same mistakes, but they are not on the defensive for having
made them, and can do better in the future.
(Morreall [2008]: 466)

44 27
Admitting Mistakes
• When one business manager made a
really bad mistake, and had to call a
meeting to talk about it, he walked into
the meeting wearing a t-shirt with a
large red bulls-eye in the front.

• Everyone laughed, relaxed, and began

working on the problem.
(Morreall [2008]: 466)

44 28
Benefits of Humor in the Workplace

• 1. Humor is physically and

psychologically healthy, especially in
reducing stress.

• 2. Humor fosters mental flexibility,

blocking negative emotions (fear, anger
and depression), and helping workers
keep their cool and think more clearly.
(Morreall [2008]: 470)

44 29
• 3. Because humor is based on enjoying what is
unexpected, humor gets us out of ruts and helps us
think more creatively.

• 4. Because humor involves switching perspectives, it

helps us cope with change and increases our
tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

• 5. Because humor helps people develop rapport with

each other, it serves as a social lubricant. Companies
which promote humor have higher morale, more
loyalty to the company, and closer bonds among
(Morreall [2008]: 470)

44 30
Examples of Humor in the Workplace

• A debt collection letter reads as


• “We appreciate your business, but,

please, give us a break. Your account
is overdue 10 months. That means that
we’ve carried you longer than your
mother did.”
(Morreall [2008]: 471)

44 31
• The CEO of a large Canadian bank
appears in a monthly corporate video
that is shown to all employees to
discuss recent issues and plans.

• “But part way through his presentation,

a hand puppet appears to ask him
questions about recent problems in the
bank and even to poke fun at him.”
(Morreall [2008]: 471)

44 32
• Just as the California police arrive on
the scene of a family fight, one officer
hears loud noises and screaming. Then
she sees a portable TV set come
crashing through the front window.

• She knocks loudly on the door, and

when the occupants ask, “Who’s there,”
she responds,

• “TV repair.”
(Morreall [2008]: 471)
44 33
Scott Adams’ “Dilbert”
• “‘Dilbert” themes include downsizing, heavy work
loads, micromanagement of budgets, humiliating
small cubicles, the accelerating pace of change,
corporate gobbledegook, management fads, cruel
bosses, annoying colleagues, and red tape.”

• Guy Kawasaki, a management expert at Apple

Computer says: “There are only two kinds of
companies, those that recognize that they’re just like
‘Dilbert,’ and those that don’t know it yet.”
(Morreall [2008]: 472)

44 34
Southwest Airlines
• Herb Kelleher is the CEO of Southwest Airlines.

• In 1994, Fortune magazine featured Kelleher

“dressed in a WWI-style leather aviator’s helmet and
goggles flying with just his arms. The caption read,
“Is Herb Kelleher America’s Best CEO? He’s wild;
he’s crazy; he’s in a tough business—and he has
built the most successful airline in the U.S.”

• The article goes on to show how “Kelleher’s sense

of humor, his quick mind and business savvy, and
his ability to create an enthusiastic team are
(Morreall [2008]: 473).
44 35
Herb Kelleher
• In his job interviews, one of the questions that
Kelleher asks is, “Tell me how you recently used
your sense of humor in a work environment. Tell me
how you have used humor to defuse a difficult
situation.” He explains why:

• “What we are looking for, first and foremost, is a

sense of humor. We don’t care that much about
education and expertise, because we can train
people…. We hire attitudes.”
(Morreall [2008] 473)

44 36
Herb Kelleher vs. Kurt
• In 1992, the slogan of Southwest
Airlines was “Just Plane Smart.”

• In 1992, the slogan of Stevens Aviation

was “Plane Smart.”

• So the two CEOs decided to arm

wrestle for the slogan.
(Morreall [2008]: 474)

44 37
The Arm-Wrestling Match
• Herwald was a beefy 37-year-old weight lifter.

• Kelleher was a 61-year-old long-time smoker

and bourbon drinker.

• When Kelleher came to the match, he had his

right arm in a sling, and a bad case of
“Athlete’s Foot”—the result of “overtraining”
(Morreall [2008]: 474)

44 38
Kelleher Lost the Match, but…
• The Southwest people were in the stands shouting,
“Herb! Herb! Herb!”

• Although Kelleher lost the match, the Southwest

people still enjoy telling the story.

• More of the story of Southwest Airlines can be found

in Kevin and Jackie Freiberg’s book, Nuts!
Southwest Airline’s Crazy Recipe for Business and
Personal Success
(Morreall [2008] 474)

44 39
Herb Kelleher’s Southwest
• Southwest employees are encouraged to create a
playful environment.

• When there is a delay at the gate, the ticket agent

might award prizes to the passengers with the
strangest items in their pockets or purses.

• They have even been known to sing the flight safety

announcements to the tune of the theme song from
the Beverly Hillbillies TV show.
(Morreall [2008]: 474)

44 40
Logical Infelicities and
Language Play in Advertising:
• Name Calling
– Ape Lincoln, bleeding heart liberal, male chauvinist pig
• Glittering Generality
– our Christian heritage, unquestioned patriotism, silent
• Plain-Folks Appeal
– kissing babies, eating Polish sausages, fried chicken, or
• Stroking (Argument ad Populum)
– you fine people, heartland of America, backbone of America
• Argument ad Hominem
– fanatics, lesbians, Lincoln the baboon
(Cross [2009]: 149-159)

44 41
• Transfer (Guilt or Glory by Association)
– Ku Klux Klan, as American as apple pie
• Bandwagon
– the Pepsi generation, Blings & Icies
• Faulty Cause and Effect
– frisby suck, when I wash my car it rains.
• False Analogy
– Don’t change horses in mid stream.
(Cross [2009]: 149-159)

44 42

• Begging the Question

– rhetorical question, Why did you murder your wife?
• The two-Extremes Fallacy (False Dilemma)
– America, love it or leave it. You’re with me, or you’re
against me.
• Card Stacking (Cherry Picking)
– If it bleeds it leads. ct. the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth
• Testimonial
– Joe Namath selling panty hose, a TV doctor (or a real
doctor) promoting a certain medicine
(Cross [2009]: 149-159)

44 43
Doublespeak & Newspeak
• As chair of the National Council of Teachers of English’s
Committee on Public Doublespeak, William Lutz has been a
watchdog of public officials who use language to “mislead,
distort, deceive, inflate, circumvent, obfuscate.”

• Each year the committee presents the Doublespeak Award,

recognizing the most outrageous use of public doublespeak in
the worlds of government and business.

• Lutz considers doublespeak to be “language which pretends to

communicate but doesn’t, language which makes the bad seem
good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant attractive, or
at least tolerable.”
(Lutz [2009]: 177)

44 44
Weasel Words
• Weasel Words—named for the empty eggs that weasels have
sucked the contents out of:
– “Help”
– Virtually Spotless
– New and Improved
– Acts Fast
– Works Like, Works Against, Works Longer
– Like Magic
– Up To
– Twice as Long
(Lutz [2009]: 422-451)

44 45
Misleading Language
• Sissela Bok says that we need to
distinguish between the various ways
there are to mislead people, including
“duplicity, mendacity, deception,
deceit, lying, exaggerations, and
(Bok [2009]: 190)

44 46
Defenders of The War in Iraq
• “Defenders of the Bush administration’s war
policies reject all imputations of deceit.
True, some among them acknowledge, their
predictions turned out to be wrong; true,
they may have relied on faulty intelligence or
untrustworthy informants. But they spoke in
error, they insist, never intending to
(Bok [2009]: 196)

44 47
Opponents of the War in Iraq
• “Increasing numbers now question whether
intelligence was simply erroneous or whether it was
twisted, ‘cherry-picked,’ to mislead the public.”

• “They are skeptical about the sincerity of those who

claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
and who issued warnings such as that ‘the smoking
gun that could turn into a mushroom cloud’ or who
claimed to know that Saddam Hussein was in league
with Al-Quaeda.”
(Bok [2009]: 196)

44 48
• “Even among those who hold such sharply
discordant views, however, there are two
areas of agreement. First, most people now
agree that President Bush and other public
officials presented arguments to support
going to war that relied on evidence later
found to be false. Second, most also agree
that the burden of death, disability, and
suffering resulting from the invasion is far
greater than the proponents of going to war
had predicted.”
(Bok [2009]: 197)

44 49
• In Humor Works, John Morreall said
that people do their best work when
they have control over their lives and
when they feel they are valued
members of a team.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 57)

• Morreall outlined five advantages of

humor in the workplace:
44 50
1. It helps reduce psychological distance between
management and non-management.

2. It minimizes formality and makes it easy and

comfortable for people to communicate across

3. It fosters camaraderie and team spirit.

4. It promotes positive rather than negative


5. It encourages people to take risks and try new

(Nilsen and Nilsen 57)

44 51
• Robert Frost said, “By
working faithfully eight
hours a day, you may
eventually get to be a boss
and work twelve hours a
(Nilsen & Nilsen 57-58)

44 52
• C. Thomas Howard, director of the MBA
program at the University of Denver said in a
New York Times interview:

• “It’s interesting that hard skills are

considered better than soft, but when people
go into management, it’s the soft skills
that…make the difference in career
(Nilsen & Nilsen 58)
44 53
• In California, first-time traffic offenders can
go to traffic school rather than having a
ticket go on their permanent record.

• In designing traffic schools, Ray and Linda

Regan had less success in traditional
schools than in funny schools.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 58)

44 54
• The humor in the funny traffic schools is always “on

• One instructor said that an extra reason for keeping a

child safe in a backward-facing car seat is “If you get
rear-ended, you’ve got a witness.”

• Another instructor said that most car accidents

happen within 10 miles from home and then says,
“The last time I mentioned that, a guy jumped up in
the back of the class and said, ‘That’s it. I’m
(Nilsen & Nilsen 58)

44 55
In Funny Business: Humour, Management and Business Culture,
Jean-Louis Barsoux said that there are similarities between
good humor and good advertising copy:

1. They require brevity

2. They open people’s minds to enable them to have a new


3. People get involved in processing the message, and therefore

remember it longer.
(Nilsen and Nilsen 58-59)

44 56
• Volkswagon successfully introduced the VW Rabbit
into the United States with a 10-second commercial.

• It showed two rabbits looking into the camera, with

one of them saying,

• “In 1956 there were only two VWs in America.”

(Nilsen & Nilsen 59)

44 57
44 58
• MURPHY’S LAW: “If anything can go wrong, it will,”
extended to “When left to themselves, things always
go from bad to worse,” and “If anything can go
wrong, it will, and even if it can’t it might.”

• O’TOOLE’S LAW: “Murphy was an optimist.”

• DAMON RUNYAN’S LAW: “In all human affairs, the

odds are always six to five against.”
(Nilsen & Nilsen 95)

44 59
• !!THE PETER PRINCIPLE: “Each employee tends to
rise to their level of incompetence.”


doing well they will be promoted, which means that
everyone not upwardly mobile is incompetent.”


“Seven-eights of everything can’t be seen.”


TINKERTOYS: “If it can be understood, it’s not yet
(Nilsen & Nilsen 96)

44 60
• RULE NUMBER 1: “The boss is always

• RULE NUMBER 2: “If the boss is

wrong, see Rule Number 1.”
(Nilsen & Nilsen 37)

44 61
Business Humor Web Sites





44 62











44 64

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44 66
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44 67
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44 68
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44 69
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