The Joker (Archetypes #1)

Nov 04 2012

“The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.” – Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali epitomises the idea of disruptive imagination, combining elements of the Joker and Rebel archetypes. In a previous article we discussed the importance of the archetypes and how they relate to basic human motivations (link here). In the article, I cited Virgin as an example of a trickster brand, combining the fun and enjoyment of the Joker archetype with the rebellious values of its owner Richard Branson. I will discuss the Rebel archetype in the next post in this series.

Virgin Atlantic is steeped in the Joker archetype, which permeates their advertising, their copy (both in print and in on-board materials), the naming of on-board kit and of course the service provided on their flights. Compare and contrast the ‘mates on a night out’ service on Virgin with the ‘school mistress’ service on British Airways, and you can see why Richard Branson is constantly making fun of his evil rival.

The Joker archetype includes the Jester, Clown, Trickster, Fool, Entertainer, Comedian and Satirist. This covers a wide range from the playfulness and spontaneity of young children to Shakespeare’s fools (especially King Lear’s), the Coyote figure in American Indian literature, the Yankee tinker in American history, Loki in Scandinavian mythology, Kitsune in Japanese mythology, Hanuman and Sun Wu Kong in South and North Asian fairy tales, and Hermes, Mercury and Prometheus to the Greeks. All share the same spirit of spontaneity and fun, frequently combined with cunning and guile (the Joker uses his head more than his hands).

It’s always possible to have fun on your own, but the Joker is all about getting everyone outside to play with one another, and he loves interaction and spontaneous meetings. They are always the life of the party. and are a perfect archetype for modern life where everyone is hungry for fun and new experiences.

Joker’s bring out the kid in you, and always help you to see the funny side of even the most serious of situations. Their core desire is to have fun and enjoyment in life (living life in the moment), and they are on a mission to lighten up the world and everyone around them.

Carl Kerenyi describes the trickster as “the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries”, the person within us who says the unsayable, pokes fun at authority and breaks taboos (that’s the Rebel part of the Trickster coming out). This is a great archetype for brands in categories with few or no functional differences, where differentiation has to be sought on lines of personality rather than product features.

The Joker is also perfect for helping people to deal with the crazier and more absurd aspects of modern living and with faceless bureaucracy, taking everything with a pinch of salt and with a fairly easy going attitude to rules and conventions. Jokers are at heart anarchists (which is why they are next to the Rebel in the circle of archetypes), and they would agree with Emma Goldman that, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” This also means that they can be very innovative and are able to think differently from others.

The vice of the Joker is that his/her jokes can turn into cruel tricks, especially when they feel bored with life (their greatest fear). With the motto, “You only live once” (unlike James Bond), they will never get tied down, committed or stuck in a rut. Other brands which are in this territory are M&Ms, 7UP, Pepsi (sometimes) and Fanta.

Pepsi’s position has always been as a challenger brand, and what better positioning than to be the person that pokes fun at the ruler’s pomposity and seriousness, making fun of their smugness and complacency? That’s why Pepsi’s best advertising has always been in the territory of the Joker, with laughter, spontaneity, pranks, playfulness and fun being the perfect antidote to the responsible, mature, serious, boring and uptight brand leader, Miller Lite is another brand which plays this card (the Joker archetype is common in the beer category with fun being a key category driver).

Although the most common use of the Joker is to convey the idea of life as a game and fun, there are more complex and sophisticated layers to the Joker’s values, which an lead to the idea of intelligence as a tool to trick others and get out of trouble (some elements of transformation) and ultimately to the experience of life in the moment, one day at a time, with complete spontaneity and freedom.

If you are a brand who wants to help people belong, have a good time, have a fun loving organisation or need to differentiate yourself from a self-important and over-confident brand leader, then the Joker may be the ideal archetype for you.


The Hero and the Outlaw by Margaret Mark & Carol S. Pearson

Brand Meaning by Mark Batey

Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture by Lewis Hyde

2 responses so far

  1. Great stuff! Your work is taking a really interesting turn. I hope clients appreciate it and pay for the courses and consulting, as much as we readers enjoy your productive and creative thinking. Personally, I refer to Richard Branson as “the Sheriff of Nottingham dressed as Robin Hood.” He is the only large-scale capitalist I can see who continually refers to himself as a rebel and friend of the poor. In fact his latest heist — seizing UK£ 800 million worth of publicly owned banking assets for around £300 million (if I recall right) was a classic example of robber baron exploitation. And he got of scot free with people ready to hurl deposits at his new bank! Trickster, robber baron, whatever, Branson is a great case study.

  2. Interesting point about Branson’s use of the Trickster image, and now we Yanks have our own equivalent in Donald Trump (BTW, what a perfect name for a Trickster figure)!
    Of course in his many different incarnations in world culture… Loki, Coyote, Raven, etc…. the Trickster/Joker also usually leaves a lot of chaos in his wake!

Leave a Reply