The joke isn’t funny any more

Mark Carney’s first interest rate announcement since he became Governor of the Bank of England has passed without incident.  Rates remained unchanged and the Monetary Policy Committee gave clear guidance about future direction. The owner of the most highly promoted Oyster card since Prince Charles took the tube could teach a thing of two to his Australian counterparts.

There, the Aussie dollar tumbled after an off the cuff comment by Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia. He said: “As some of you may know, the Reserve Bank Board meeting was in Brisbane yesterday at which we deliberated for a long time to leave the cash rate unchanged.” This, the press office hurriedly clarified as the markets went into a tailspin, was “a joke”.

So the RBA followed Cricket Australia and the Labour Party in celebrating the new Australian hobby of shooting yourself in the foot. It also showed why business and humour simply don’t mix.

In 20 years as a financial journalist I only experienced one example of a good joke by a business. That was when pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca dismissed takeover rumours saying it knew no reason for the sharp improvement in its share price other than investors realising the great prospects and intrinsic value of the business.

Other than that there are many cases of jokes backfiring – such as when Pepsi offered customers a brand new Harrier II fighter jet if they could collect 7 million Pepsi Points (all the other items cost between 75 and 1,450 points). John Leonard, a 21-year-old business student from Seattle, sent Pepsi 15 Pepsi Points, a $700,000 cheque (additional points could be purchased outright for 10 cents each), and an order form with the words “1 Harrier Jet” handwritten at the bottom of the “Item” column. When Pepsi refused to supply the jet it was a PR disaster.

Companies have to realise that when there is a potential for moving markets or precipitating lawsuits, it’s not a time to reach for the joke book. Also they should realise that one person’s joke is often another person’s insult.

As Morrissey famously opined:

“But that joke isn’t funny anymore
It’s too close to home
And it’s too near the bone
It’s too close to home
And it’s too near the bone
More than you’ll ever know …”

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