Ideas that will shake you: In praise of The Beano

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Written by Nigel Paine on 26 April 2021

The kids comic The Beano was first published in 1938 but its ubiquitous star Dennis the Menace has just celebrated his 70th birthday, although he does not look a day older than ten! For many people that is a meaningless anniversary, but for readers of a certain age it is monumental.

What was it about that rather silly comic that makes it so iconic? People who have never read it, have still absorbed the story and the logic of the characters, and even the hooped red and black top of the two most celebrated characters : Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx!

The reason for the comic's celebrity is not its brilliance, or its deep connection with its audience, rather, it is what it symbolises. Comics before the Beano were proper. They had middle-class characters who spoke well and behaved impeccably and fought off dastardly deeds by wicked people with aplomb and finesse.

In comparison the characters in the Beano live completely shambolic lives and get their pleasures from much smaller achievements and, notably, in the miseries they inflict on their peers and their foolish teachers. They are naughty, and love being naughty. Even the drawing is messy and confusing sometimes. And Dennis the Menace is at the heart of all the bedlam: the essence of the comic itself.

The Beano succeeds because it starts with a recognisable reality that it then translates into a private world that its audience immediately tunes into

He is loved because he speaks directly to his young audience. He also managed to appal their parents who, after all, had to pay for the comic.

I can't think of a single adult who thought this comic was anything other than a disgrace, but reluctantly bought it each week for their child (usually male) because of the insistent whining and desperate obsession they had with Dennis and his pals. Reading the Beano was like entering a private world that excluded all those who didn't get it. 

And it was its very ridiculous stupidity that made it such fun.

Everyone scoured the Beano each Wednesday when it came out, to see if they could notice some obscure link or subtle note that others had not seen. With Dennis, the Dundee publishing house of DC Thompson had struck a gold mine that still delivers 70 years on, when the imitators and rival characters have long since disappeared.

They have maintained Dennis' popularity for all that time by changing as little as possible. Although a new character called 'Alexa' has appeared on Dennis' bedside table to offer a running commentary on Dennis's thoughts. It is an inanimate speaker with a blue light round the rim, so we all get where that comes from!

We have got a lot to learn from the Beano. Sometimes the way we communicate with our colleagues in an organisation is far too stuffy, respectable and formal.

Why don't we try and exploit the Zeitgeist, the unique culture which every organisation demonstrates so that, without being inappropriate, we can nevertheless get at a deep set of values and beliefs that the organisation shares with its staff alone, but which are rarely shared formally.

Let us not forget the power of the in-joke, the insights for a small community and the role of humour. Creating a little club that excludes the rest of the world is not such a bad idea. That is what happens in the best teams and the most connected organisations.

Stop being stuffy, stop doing what everyone else does, and find an original voice that resonates deeply with your target group, and see if you can build a relationship that  transcends simple content and focuses on digging deep into the reservoirs of culture that are largely  unexploited in most organisations, and by most people in L&D. 

The Beano succeeds because it starts with a recognisable reality that it then translates into a private world that its audience immediately tunes into. That is not a bad model for all of us.


About the author

Nigel Paine is a change-focused leader with a unique grasp of media, learning and development in the public, private and academic sectors.

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