Fantasy, Labor, and the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company: Working for The Office
by Derek Johnson — University of Wisconsin, Madison
April 30, 2009 – 00:11
If NBC’s The Office is a show about work, then its multiplication across media points to crucial relationships between overflow and labor. The series’ extension beyond television depends on viewers’ identification as laborers and their willingness to extend that subjectivity to new institutions. Overflow, in this case, depends on work.
One of the major appeals of the television series lies in its concern with the social dynamics of labor subject to corporate institutions. In the 2007 episode “Local Ad,” for example, Michael Scott and his co-workers produce a commercial for Dunder Mifflin, the paper company that employs them. Dunder Mifflin becomes tangible in this clip as a site of institutional identification for both the characters and the viewer. Whether or not we actually work for a company like Dunder Mifflin, we laugh partly from recognizing our own real labor as performed for, with, and within larger institutions (often to similar comic effect). The Office makes working for institutions like Dunder Mifflin funny.
As seen in this second clip (a short 2007 promo), NBC has used this laborer identification to transplant the Office experience to digital venues, turning the fantasy of Dunder Mifflin into virtual work. Playful viewers can visit DunderMifflinInfinity.com, fill out an application, and telecommute to work for a local branch operating in parallel to Michael Scott’s Scranton, PA office. Competing in weekly tasks assigned by corporate headquarters, these virtual workers wield the same digital tools used in real world jobs—communication, graphics, and other productivity software suites—to labor for a fictional company. In the process of completing these tasks, employees have made their own local ads to promote the Dunder Mifflin brand (like this third clip produced out of the Fort Myers branch). These viewers find the fantasy of working for Dunder Mifflin to be not just funny, but also fun.
Of course, all this labor generates digital media artifacts to promote NBC’s Office television franchise online. Dunder Mifflin employees are, essentially, unpaid NBC employees. This employee subjectivity, moreover, profits NBC by encouraging viewers to make consumer purchases as laborers. Office fans can buy mugs, stationery, and other office products to express their identity as employees of Dunder Mifflin (sadly, without the tax deduction afforded traditional employees). NBC is not the only television fantasy employer; ABC, for example, hired Lost viewers to work virtually for the fictional Dharma Initiative in 2008. Overflow here depends on the work of audiences who take pleasure in the recognition of shared labor institutions, consent to labor in the pursuit of fantasy, and do so in line with the promotional needs of media corporations. The Office supports an overflow of labor where work in the real world, work in the fantasy world, and work for NBC converge.
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