It’s a joke

Chris Bardsley once wrote a commercial for Walkers Poppadums, little crisps with an Indian flavour. We had a young, good-looking Indian Elvis (Las Vegas period) singing in a corner shop.

He was dressed head-to-toe in white, rhinestones, a turban, and a sitar slung guitar-style round his neck. He sung, “Keep your gums off my Poppadums” to the tune of “All Shook Up”.

The commercial was really funny, and went down really well. Then The Daily Mail interviewed the young guy who starred in it. They asked him if he wasn’t ashamed to be taking part in a racist commercial: something that would make his people a laughing stock.

I loved his reply. He said, “It’s a particularly white concept that you think you are the only people confident enough in who you are to be able to laugh at yourselves. You think every other race secretly wants to be white. So you don’t mention their ethnicity, you treat it as a disability to be politely ignored.

“Well I am a Sikh, and we consider ourselves second to no one. We don’t want to be white. We are very proud of who we are. We have absolutely no insecurity about our race whatsoever. That is why we can laugh at ourselves.”

I think there is a whole PC industry built around getting offended on behalf of someone else. And I think it’s very patronising. This is particularly true of women.

In advertising particularly, we patronise them by assuming they can’t laugh at themselves. We assume that all women begrudge men’s historical superiority.

So, in order to correct thousands of years of sexism, we must constantly show strong, capable women triumphing over arrogant and useless men. This is considered okay because men can laugh at themselves, being confident in who they are.

Women of course can’t laugh at themselves because they aren’t confident. But even if that’s true of some women, isn’t it patronising to assume all women are identical?

Recently I was on the D&AD cinema & TV jury with Creative Directors from all over the world. One Australian commercial for beer was particularly controversial.

It featured a man being dragged out of the pub in front of his mates, by his wife. Suddenly a character called ‘The Woman Whisperer’ appears.

He calms the wife down and talks quietly to her. He persuades her to go and have a chat with her friend and let her husband go back to finish his beer.

The American female creative director was furious about this commercial. She said it was “Disgusting, sexist, dinosaur thinking. It demeans women and perpetuates an outmoded sexual stereotype.”

The other female on the jury was English: Kate Stanners Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi. Kate said, “But it’s a joke.”

I think the difference was that one woman was English and the other was American. I’ve heard it said that English women don’t feel they have to behave like men in order to be equal, as American women do.

They can enjoy their femininity and still be equal. Another way of putting it is they can take a joke.

The best advice I ever heard on this subject came from Dawn French. She was asked about comedy overstepping the mark and becoming bad taste.

She said, “The rule is: if it’s funny it’s not bad taste and if it’s bad taste it’s not funny.” You can’t beat that.

When we hear a joke, before we slot into “Does it fit the PC criteria?” question, let’s see if it makes us laugh. And before we feel guilty for laughing, let’s see if we really should.

Humour isn’t necessarily harmful. Laughing at something doesn’t always mean disliking what you’re laughing at. It might mean including it.

Laughing at something, or someone, is generally known as ‘banter’ nowadays. And it’s one way, especially amongst men, of making someone feel included.

To a lot of women it seems a waste of time. Joking and playing around, instead of getting on with something useful. But to men it isn’t.

Whether or not you like Maggie Thatcher, she was a powerful woman. She understood that, for men, humour is very important.

So she didn’t lecture everyone on the importance of equality in sexual representation in government. She simply said, “If you want something said ask a man. If you want something done ask a woman.”

And she got on with running the country. A brilliant putdown, and men respect that much more than nagging.

Jo Brand understands that you don’t beat men by trying to make them feel guilty. You beat men by being funnier than they are.

She once said, “The way to a man’s heart is through his top pocket with a breadknife.”

That’s why she most men’s favourite female comedian. She’s funny. She gets it. She understands it’s a joke.

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    I’m away for 2 weeks in Umbria. But I’ll check on the comments occasionally from the local internet cafe.

  • I remember Chris’s commercial; it was at a time when black men shown with ghetto blasters on their shoulder, for example, was irking certain sections of the black community as racist stereotyping by advertisers.
    I also recall defending Poppadums in the minority media, as nothing more than funny and not racist at all.
    I failed.

  • On the other hand, if a minority ethnic or any minority complains about perceived racial or sexual stereotyping, the general response is that, unlike us, they can’t take a joke.

    I love that whole ‘us English can laugh at ourselves’ thing as it’s so blatantly untrue. We can laugh at English stereotypes, true. Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, Blackadder. But witness the frothing indignation when the Aussies accuse us of not being overly concerned with personal hygiene, the Americans question our commitment to dental care, or anyone at all suggests we might be duplicitous, backward, warlike or rubbish in bed, and it’s obvious our humour sensors have blind spots.

  • The absence of malice can be a defence for stereotyping humour. Laughing at ourselves is the best way to exercise the form. I recently spent a half hour walking around HMV DVD dept with a Maltese-Australian. He was looking for a copy of ‘Mind your language’ best of…TV series. I was mildly aghast. Not so much with the racial stereotyping but with his keeness to watch naff writing. But I did suggest it might not be very PC for HMVs taste. He explained that in Australia they call italians, greeks, maltese & spanish ‘wogs’. People take all that sort of stuff too seriously. Maybe that’s why the indigenous people of Australia have only just received an official apology for the ‘joke’ the Brits played on them 200 odd years ago. I must confess to finding ‘Allo-Allo’ funny because it is so ‘carry-on’ in its humour. But, I don’t Mind your language at all funny. I also found funny the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry pals up with a rapper who asks Larry ‘Are you my nigger?’. Larry respond appropriately saying,’Yes. Are you my caucasian?’

    It’s in the intent and in the writing. But we have to be careful. There is an army of unpleasant people out there just looking for an opportunity to practice their prejudices more overtly. Humour can be a soft entry into dangerous territory.

    I have a book of old brand logos from the 20s & 30s. One is a drawing of a black person with the word ‘dirt’ hanging around their necks. They are being beaten on the skull with a large spoon. The caption reads ‘knocks dirt on the head’. Someone in advertising probably came up with that.

    It all goes back one of Dave’s earlier blogs, it’s not the content that matters, context is everything.

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    Hi Dave,

    Racism is a mask behind which jealousy and envy parades.

  • Hatred, racism, jealousy and envy are symptoms that mask a primal fear of something unknown. Most racists are masking their own fear of something they don’t grasp. No one want to be seen to be afraid, so they hate something or usually someone else, for the sake of not appearing frightened.

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    Just thought I’d say that I completely agree.  Don’t faint.  x

  • Cheryl Chapman

    Data and technology is a hugely powerful force for demcoracy and holding governments to account. See crowd source projects such as Ushahadi for example that gives people in disaster torn situations the ability to report on emergency aid action on the ground in real time bringing greater transparency, or the 2007 Nigerian elections where politicians were forced to be more accountable as a result of people reporting from the ballot box through digital platforms or even the UK’s FixMyStreet site that allows residents to register potholes, fly tipping, graffitti etc using digital tools that put them automatically  in touch with the right council department.  E- Bay Founder Pierre Omidyar is dedicating millions of pounds to achieiving greater government transparency and more open data through technology. Read more at Philanthropy UK news…

  • Kevin Gordon

    It’s a Yin Yang situation.
    There’s a bit of good in the bad, and a bit of bad in the good.