Monday, December 10th, 2012

So a Corporation Has Stolen Your Joke

In my fulltime job as Humor Editor for Groupon, I’m confronted daily by how difficult it can be to make a large company’s social media presence seem funny and engaging, especially to a broad demographic that might not all share the same sense of humor. It’s a brave new world out there for marketing departments trying to develop an “internetty” sense of humor on the fly, and even a casual glance reveals more misses than hits.

Despite technically getting paid to write jokes—a complete travesty that would have lead any other culture in the history of the world to put me to death by now for being a waste of grain—I can’t stop myself from compulsively giving away free jokes on Twitter. But as someone who works tirelessly in the ever self-rearranging minefield of punchy-yet-accessible corporate humor, you can imagine how thrilled I was when the “viral” campaign behind Verizon’s new cable TV alternative decided to snag one of those free joke for themselves.

Someone over at Verizon, and/or their ad agency has apparently stumbled upon the latest craze among us cable bill-paying tweens: emblazoning existing photographs with blocky white text in order to generate hilarious "memes." In this case, all about ditching cable and switching to their product. The day after I posted this personal gripe about my own cable provider:

I was treated to this unsolicited reimagining from Verizon’s social media team:

Here's a thing about stealing jokes that you might not know if you haven't been on the internet in the past nine years: You are maybe not supposed to steal jokes. Especially to advertise your own product or service. The above image found itself onto their main-page alongside memes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, captioned “Hasta la vista, Cable,” and a twist on classic Mr. T: “I pity…the Cable Guy!”

You'd think that the external validation of seeing my own observation plastered over a picture of a guy making a funny face would have me laughing uncontrollably and shouting "WHERE DO I SIGN?" But instead I found myself full of blinding Internet rage and leapt into action like a thousand Konys swarming a SOPA (Sorry, it's basically 2013, I don't remember if that's a valid analogy or not). I now present to you my Five-Step guide to confronting a company who has just stolen your joke:

  • Step One: Google for "Verizon FiOS" and "marketing." Every time a company does everything, there are press releases about it that name names, often with contact information.
  • Step Two: Call the highest ranking person you can find on their direct extension. This will let them know you are a big shot and/or lunatic.
  • Step Three: Immediately realize that if you call the highest ranking person, they will likely be completely disconnected from your issue, and also sound really old and confused.
  • Step Four: Try not to find that hilarious. You're here on business.
  • Step Five: Explain the situation rationally, but firmly. Use your dad's phone voice, when he get free upgrades on his hotel room. In fact, use the same voice you use when dealing with the terrible cable provider whose fault this really is to begin with. Leave contact information and thank them in advance for getting back to you when the matter is rectified.

Still not satisfied? Neither was I. Consider adding these three bonus steps:

  • Step Six: E-mail a bunch of that person's subordinates because you're still mad.
  • Step Seven: Receive an extremely frustrated reply from the too-old-to-be-dealing-with-this director of public relations telling you that the controversial material has been removed and asking you to please, please stop badgering his staff, they didn't sign on for whatever this is NONE OF US DID.
  • Step Eight: Write a blog entry about the entire minor debacle because you're still mad.

Step six turned out to be the tipping point and I'm happy to report that Verizon did the right thing in deleting the Tweet and taking the image down. There are countless examples of stories like this with higher visibility or financial stakes and unhappier endings. As I’m writing this, this post just showed up on my Twitter feed and it’s abundantly clear that as creativity and commerce continue to collide on the Internet, this is just going to be a thing that happens now.

Fortunately, a lot of us are in a position to do something about it. If you find your content poached, speak up. By staying vigilant and keeping a (fairly) level head, you might find that the same virality designed to boost a marketing campaign usually works even better in the direction of gently shaming a company who can’t be bothered to develop original content. Better yet, if you work in a marketing department or ad agency and the demands of the internet suddenly call upon you to be funny? The solution is simple: hire funny people. Comedians are famously underemployed and experts at walking the line between edgy and likeable. If you see something on Twitter that makes you laugh, that’s because there is a person behind it—a writer—who is desperately trying to get your attention.

Daniel Kibblesmith is a writer, cartoonist, and comedian in Chicago.

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  • complainer…

    And yet when someone who doesn't work for Splitsider says the same thing, you tear them a new butthole


  • kibblesmom

    Except you forgot to mention that your 'joke' wasn't even funny in the first place. Even though Verizon is a big bad telco but even they managed to improve it with that image. Nice one.

  • boring

    Seriously? This is a big deal? A company took your tweet and turned it into a meme? Are you that hard up for recognition? I hope you've never repeated a joke in your entire life.. I just wasted 5 minutes of my life I will never get back reading this garbage

  • schmergblerg

    Unlike the other examples of stealing given (companies or people lifting someone else's joke without attribution and possibly profiting from it), Verizon tweeted AT you. They didn't steal your joke; they liked it and propagated it and gave you credit. If you don't want people to retweet your jokes or reshape your material into new material (with attribution), then why are you on Twitter?

  • chichicagochi

    "…wouldn't trust it to hold a baby" is an antiquated joke that clearly belongs to the public domain. They edited your 'original' twist on it and gave you credit and you nerdraged? As the previous comment states, you should probably pick a side of this debate and stick to it. Just because you work as a corporate pun maker to pay the bills does not mean that you are given some sort of license to decide who gets to use old jokes and who doesn't.

    • xiromisho

      I was more angery about the terrible jokes and the poor attempts to make memes… as well as paying off memebase.com to put their ads up without the "Sponser" banner over it.

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    Responses so far seem a bit harsh to me since I enjoyed this post. Verizon really wasn't acting in the holiday spirit. The guy made a tweet, they appropriated it, he didn't like it, he told them he didn't like it, they took it down. Don't see any bad guys. Just people trying to get by in this weird wild west that is the world wide web.

  • Thanks, Pal!


    Interesting to finally see what the creative mind behind Groupon's awful posts have to say. Along with being a terrible company, their write-ups generally seem like they're trying to talk you out of whatever business they're supposedly helping.

  • chichicagochi

    I should also mention that you have an uncredited picture from Verizon Wireless in this article that is mislabeled as Verizon-Fios. They are two different divisions with two different marketing campaigns/companies.

    Welcome to the internet.

  • http://about.me/bradreason Brad Reason

    The only person that ever cares a joke was stolen is the joke's creator. No one else ever cares. There's no way to rally the whole Internet together and say 'hey c'mon we really shouldn't ever tell a joke we've heard, only jokes we've created'

  • ejag

    Advertising Age stole a joke of mine for a billboard. I just put them on my resume.

  • LloydXmas

    Just because you give something away doesnt give somebody else the right to profit from it. If Verizon was giving away keychains, do you think they would be ok with somebody taking a handful of them, setting up a table down the street and selling them for a nickel each?

  • http://twitter.com/Alekce ale

    you are allowed to riff on jokes, you retard, that's how comedy works. that's how language works. that's what a meme is. sorry that you are alienated from your labor and have to constantly police your TradeMark Brand or whatever because you're not getting a living wage, but that's a systemic concern. And Finally: Your joke wasn't funny. What was funny was your intense overreaction.

  • http://twitter.com/AntichristFox Chaos Reigns Fox

    I sure as shit wouldn't let Verizon hold anything of value.