Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home The joke

IBM invites viewers to listen in on a conversation among a group of British Isles fishermen - identified by their thick accents and enunciations - standing on the ocean's edge. The subject of their conversation is a concern about a colleague who is missing from their midst. This then is the site of a traditional fish market in a semi-peripheral region of the world system.

First man: "Where's Eric, then?"
Second voice: "Never misses a market"
Third voice: "There was a bad squall last night"
Fourth voice: "Maybe he ran up on some rocks?"
"Maybe he was swept overboard?"
Maybe he drowned?"
"Or sharks?"
"Sharks they all echo in the background as mull it over.
Younger man" "Maybe he already sold his catch, online, from the boat?" He walks away
As a group the older men ponder, and then respond in unison: "Sharks."
IBM female voiceover: "Now you can sell anything, from anywhere.
Wireless e-business from IBM."

Wireless e-business

The joke plays off the construction of the traditional ethnicity of these fishermen. The scene is a group of men standing on the rocks speaking with pastiche of accents from the British Isles. In the background is a scent of the pipes and fifes of seafaring folk music adding semiotic weight to the scene. These men are traditionalists, the doubting Thomas's of the technological revolution. It is easier for them to believe that their friend Eric was eaten by sharks than accept that he sold his catch online. IBM's joke depends on the tone of the delivery. Here, the lack of affect that tinges their lines about the possible horrible demise of their friend linguistically exaggerates a stereotypical trait of men hardened by a life at sea to the point that it spills over into humor.

Moreover, like other commercials in this campaign IBM suggests that their technology fits into a cultural setting and improves economic efficiency while leaving the culture intact. IBM depicts its wireless service advantageously linking the fisherman (small businessman) to the global market and simultaneously 'liberating' him from the local market. Thus Eric sells his catch early. Ironically, IBM also captures unintended privatization. Eric no longer has to go to the market to sell his fish and is able to disengage from the social relations tied to the fish market. Where, if not here, in the basic social relations of the region, is the production of culture located? Perhaps the butt of the joke isn't just the old fisherman prone to idle speculation, but rather the traditional culture itself.

However, this ad is not aimed at fishermen but businessmen. Christie Davies notes ethnic humor allows "those who devise, tell or share a joke" to feel a "vicarious superiority" over those who are the butt of the joke. Advertising constructed around an ethnic joke demands the viewer to choose the group with which he/she identifies. Do we want to be left behind like the unbelieving fishermen on the dock or do we want to be in the forefront of the technological revolution? Do we identify with the absent Eric, the techno-innovator, or with these fishermen who express traditional fears? The answer is preordained in the narrative of the commercial.

In series of commercials FedEx creates humorous vignettes that play off ethnic stereotypes. The commercials are structured around the decision not to ship FedEx resulting in dire consequences.

The stereotype is a form generalization; it lacks the detail of the particular. Since commercials are compacted narratives, stereotypical representations serve as culturally recognizable shorthand. The group of hyper-polite Japanese businessmen and the laid back Texas entrepreneur, with the mix of accents, linguistic styles, and subtitles heighten a sense of cultural difference based on stereotypes. The background settings and music further set the tone for the joke. Humor works by exaggerating the stereotype, pushing it over the limits. Advertising both uses the stereotype and parodies it. By creating distance from the original, parody ameliorates the offensiveness associated with the stereotype. Nevertheless, the joke's humor is contingent on the power of the original. Cultural difference results in the error that makes the Japanese businessmen the butt of the joke. They can't recognize the difference between month old filet mignon and beef jerky. FedEx injects itself into the joke's structure via voice-over. "Shipping internationally?" "Next time use FedEx and be absolutely sure." By shipping FedEx not only will your packages arrive promptly but also your company can transcend cultural differences.

In another ad FedEx juxtaposes two radically different cultural settings. The joke relies on a shipping error in which objects enter inappropriate domains. The Detroit Red Wings are waiting to be presented with the Stanley Cup at Joe Louis Arena. The crowd chants, "We want the Cup!" Delivered by a company named Servicio Rapido a box with the Cup finally arrives. When it is opened, it turns out to be a bag of burro feed. The scene shifts to Bolivia. An identical box is opened with the Stanley Cup. As the Red Wings chase the man in charge of delivery across the ice, the Stanley Cup is hoisted in a Bolivian street market to awe of a crowd of peasants. Humor is based on incongruity in which an object enters a radically different cultural setting in which it has no meaning. The viewer is privy to both settings allowing the viewer to get pleasure out of the incongruity that the participants in the ad are unable to recognize.

Sign Formulas & Branding
Signifying Clusters
Structural Frames
A further factor that underlies much humor and is brought out particularly well in ethnic jokes is the sense of sudden vicarious superiority felt by those who devise, tell, or share a joke. Ethnic jokes 'export' a particular unwanted trait to some other group and we laugh at their folly, perhaps glad or relieved that it is not our own. This possibility is also open to individual members of the ethnic group being ridiculed, for all such groups are internally stratified and differentiated such that a listener from the ethnic group named or implied in the joke can always interpret the joke as referring to a subgroup other than the one to which he or she belongs. Furthermore, individuals are not necessarily simply and unambiguously members of one and only one clearly demarcated ethnic group.

Christie Davies, Ethnic Humor Around the World, 1990: 7

IBM ethnography - Italy < Previous

Next > Grand narratives reanimated

© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey