Fantasy, Labor, and the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company: Working for The Office

Curator's Note

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, 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.


Great post, Derek. Overflow absolutely require labor even when it is intended to be seamless, and increasingly, fan communities are being looked upon as valuable sources of free promotional and creative labor. Of course, the activities fans are encouraged to partake in are rarely referred to as “work”. The DunderMifflinInfinity experiment actually endorses fan participation as labor, which in turn, potentially exposes its value for media industries in unprecedented ways. I recall that when the producers of BattleStar Galactica held an online fan video contest a couple of years back, you could only watch submissions by first sitting through a 30-second commercial. At the time, I thought how this strategy inadvertently called attention to the economic value fan creations had for the industry (they were worthy of sponsorship). As the WGA strike revealed, overflow is a hotly contested terrain when it comes to rewarding those who labor to extend the brand’s reach, and these examples suggest that there may soon be grounds for fans to seek compensation as well.
The question remains, why do we work if it is not to be compensated? I would agree that fantasy plays an important role here, but fantasy for what? Paul DuGay would argue that we must pay attention to the ways corporations seek to promote work environments that don’t seem like “work” in order to maximize labor without stifling the impulses increasingly valued as the core of a creativity-based economy. Disney works hard to promote a work environment that seems more like a play environment for its most valued employees (those playing costumed characters at the amusement park probably see it somewhat differently). What’s interesting about The Office example you present is that fans are treated as valuable employees by being encouraged to engage in fun “tasks” that promote the series (and as you suggest, fans are rewarded for individual creative acts through prizes and reputation-building, if not with cash). And yet at its core, fan solidarity is not with the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, or with NBC, but with a particular type of work culture that undermines authority and yet, rewards creativity.

Avi Santo

It's a different type of labor to some degrees, though, since it's labor that, if enjoyed, could become its own labor of love that directs the laborers away from watching other NBC shows. I find it interesting when shows end by saying, "now go online," because surely the network would rather you stick around? Admittedly, they can't exactly say, "stick around, and after Conan tonight, then go online," but NBC first and foremost wants NBC viewers, not just Office viewers. I wonder if such calculations (of "lost" network-viewing-labor vs. "gained" overflow-generating-labor are made when designing overflow?

This is a genius move by NBC to theoretically create this whole print management organization for fans to join. It's really a great example of taking one medium (a TV show) and promoting it digitally through all these avenues.

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