The cyber jobs ad is a laughing matter | David Mitchell

At time of writing, I am in the workplace. I’m working from home but that’s still a workplace. I am, at present, working – that’s what I’m trying to say. You, I assume, are not. I’m not angling for pity but it’s a fact. Even if you are at work, or at work-from-home, you are not currently working, whatever you tell yourself. It is not your job to read this – unless you’re one of a very small number of people employed by the Observer to filter out all the libel and filth.

Apart from them, no one is paid to read this. A system where I’m paid to write it and you’re also paid to read it, great though that sounds for both of us (and it would massively take the pressure off my dutiful attempts to be entertaining, which would be a relief to me and possibly to you too) is beyond the scope even of Rishi Sunak’s gargantuan public sector borrowing requirement – and yes I do mean that to sound euphemistic.

The reason I just made a gratuitous and un-fact-checked allusion to the size of the chancellor’s penis is that, because I’m in the workplace, I’m trying to maintain a sense of humour. According to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, two business school academics from Stanford University, that’s very important and very difficult. Like brain surgery. Their research, which included a survey of 1.4 million people from 166 countries, found that the frequency with which we laugh collapses around the age of 23 – basically when we start going to work.

“The collective loss of our sense of humour is a serious problem afflicting people and organisations globally,” says Aaker. Sounds like she spends a lot of time on Twitter. She and Bagdonas have published their findings in a new book, Humour, Seriously, which warns of the negative effects of the “humour cliff” that most of us fall off when we get a job and start feeling we ought to behave like grownups. They say that it takes 10 weeks for an average 40-year-old to laugh as many times as a four-year-old does in a day and that this is self-defeating because, as the book’s subheading puts it, “Humour is a superpower at work and in life”.

Now I feel pressurised to think of another cock joke. Great. As a comedian, I’m stressed enough about whether people laugh – I can do without academics pointing out how globally important it is. That’s put the kibosh on any further levity in my workplace this morning.

The book’s title implies that the authors are aware of this paradox. It’s all a bit “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”, a phrase that’s not as reassuring as it initially sounds. Other people’s fear is outside our control and so it’s rational to fear it, thus creating more fear for others to justifiably fear. Similarly, if pervasive seriousness needs seriously addressing with emergency levity, a jokey mood may be difficult to muster. It’s like trying to summon a wee at a crowded urinal – my capricious bladder is often unmoved by my keenness to prove to the surrounding and queueing men that I’ve got a reason for standing there with my penis out.

Will that do?

Seriously, though, I love what Aaker and Bagdonas are saying. In these humourless times, humour requires serious advocacy. The death of jokes is no joke (though even that idiom uses comedy as a shorthand for insignificance). Comedians are never less funny than when earnestly bemoaning the limits placed on comic freedom, but to do it amusingly is like walking a tightrope in clown shoes. It might make you laugh if they fall off, but then they plummet to their death so that was offensive – shame on you. Jokes may have to be saved without the use of their own persuasive power.

So it’s great that taking the piss has been given the academic seal of approval. It’s something we ought to be doing, and that’s made me look again, with renewed joy, at the CyberFirst and HM Government recruitment advert that caused such consternation last week. In case you didn’t see it, it had a picture of a ballet dancer putting on her shoes accompanied by the words: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet)”.

With the theatre sector in existential crisis, this seemed eye-wateringly shitty. Everybody, including No 10 and culture secretary Oliver Dowden, immediately condemned it and it was swiftly taken down. Nobody defended or even explained it. We have not heard a peep from whoever thought it up or approved it.

I find this funny because it is not just a bad advertisement, its badness has reached a point of delightful perfection. Within the parameters of its aims, it absolutely could not be worse. It’s trying to make the point that, at this difficult time, people might want or need to change careers, and to suggest cybersecurity as an option. That’s a hard sell to begin with: cybersecurity sounds boring and malevolent. But the choice of a ballet dancer as a person who might be drawn into it is so inexplicably, idiotically poor that it becomes something comically amazing.

I can’t think of a job where a higher percentage of the people involved have chosen to do it, deliberately and passionately, than ballet dancer. Nobody “ends up” doing ballet. They don’t knock around in their early 20s and then somehow find themselves in a ballet. You don’t get stuck in a ballet rut. It is a job done exclusively by people who have dreamed of doing it for years, and then striven against the odds to make that happen.

It’s not an imperfect choice of image for the campaign, it’s the worst imaginable choice. It is a spectacularly bad mistake. It is like using petrol instead of water or cheese instead of steel. We should enjoy it the way we enjoyed Eddie the Eagle’s ski-jumping. The people who came up with this have committed, in advertising terms, a pratfall of unprecedented hilarity. In fiction, it would be unbelievable. But, in this beautiful, laughable world, it really happened. It’s enough to inject humour even into a cybersecurity workplace.

The Guardian

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