The John Oliver Effect

John Oliver is a television host known for the series “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO about controversial and misunderstood topics in the United States and elsewhere. Oliver has hosted segments on abortion, vaccines, China’s One Child Policy, and many more current areas of policy concern. In August of 2019, a segment from Oliver’s show about Prison Labor was published on YouTube. In this 20 minute show, Oliver discusses many aspects of prison labor including wages, job types, and expenses incurred while incarcerated.

John Oliver’s Prison Labor clip from “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

Some of the key points Oliver emphasizes in this segment on prison labor are that the average wage in prison is 63 cents per hour (although some states do not pay prisoners at all), treating prisoners as slaves is essentially written into the Constitution, and the Louisiana State Prison pays inmates to participate in dangerous rodeo games. Oliver discusses each of these pieces of information in detail.

These shocking facts, coupled with Oliver’s twist of dark humor, are what draw many people to watch shows like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” In the case of this episode specifically, Oliver jokes about choosing the wrong name to refer to the rodeo game in which inmates compete to see who can remain sitting the longest while an angry bull runs around trying to trample them. This is just one instance in which Oliver attempts to make his audience laugh, despite the depressing topic at hand. Another way in which Oliver employs dark humor is by calling out individuals who have differing views from his on issues.

Prisoners sit at a table playing cards and wait for the bull to charge them.

In the Prison Labor episode, Oliver makes fun of a group of speakers on a Fox News segment because, when critiquing the backlash against low inmate wages, they state that, “crime shouldn’t pay.” Instead of undermining the argument being made by these individuals, Oliver first brings up the idea that, if the segment was turned on mute, you might think the clip was a panel on erectile dysfunction. While I understand that the argument being made by the individuals on Fox News does not align with Oliver’s position, I do not think that attacking a group of people based on their appearance is the most effective way to push policy.

Screenshot of the panel on Fox News that Oliver makes fun of.

Overall, the HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is extremely popular, has helped Oliver win eight Emmy Awards, and has even inspired the term “John Oliver effect.” This term is used to describe the influence Oliver has had on the world of policymaking. One of the reasons Oliver’s content is so popular is because of his to-the-point witty personality. I personally enjoy watching Oliver’s show but am skeptical about its abilities to effect policy in a productive and ethical way.

Although John Oliver often makes complicated topics more accessible, is not afraid to talk about things that politicians are wary of, and draws a remarkable amount of attention, I do not think that his form of policy influence is ideal. Oliver may be able to sway and bring to light many hard-to-swallow concepts, but by attacking other people based only off of their beliefs, I believe he is no more admirable than a politician lying to win votes.

John Oliver’s episode on Prison Labor brings up many good points and should not be disregarded. While I don’t agree with the ethics of shaming people because of their beliefs, I understand that Oliver makes potentially boring topics more interesting to learn about. If this form of media is the most effective way to get more citizens involved in policy, it might be worth it.

-Currie

7 thoughts on “The John Oliver Effect

  1. Hi Currie,

    I really appreciated this post, and I’m glad that I get the opportunity to comment on it. At the end of the day, I think that I am of the opinion that John Oliver’s behavior does more good than harm for the policy-making world. I think that by employing sarcasm, snark, and satire, John Oliver is able to present himself as an honest figure who tells it like it is, and someone who people of certain backgrounds should trust. More than that, I think that this persona allows John Oliver to discuss the news in a captivating and entertaining way, in an era where people have no shortage of options when it comes to deciding where they want to get their information from.

    While I agree with you that insulting people may not be the best way to prove one’s point in the policymaking arena, I don’t think that’s necessarily Oliver’s burden. In my mind, John Oliver is able to effectively express the importance of certain political issues to the viewing public, and inspire them to push for the actual policy change. Because of this, I think of John Oliver as someone who is adjacent to the policymaking process, rather than someone who is necessarily embedded in it.

    – Brandon James

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  2. Hey Currie,
    I really enjoyed how your article highlights the need for better media as part of the broader policy process. Making sure that the general population has accurate and comprehensive information about issues is key in voting, advocacy, and informing public pressure initiatives to shape policy. When John Oliver and other similar “late-night” shows ridicule or isolate certain groups of people, it inherently turns a segment of the population away. Especially in the modern era of fake news and twitter trolling, we must prioritize re-legitimizing more concrete and established media structures. I think the prevalence and impact of “pop media/news” is growing at an exponential rate without society properly vetting the potential negative outcomes. Hosts like John Oliver and Trevor Noah at the end of the day are fundamentally not journalists, they are comedians and as such focus chiefly on comedy, not news. While they are a good additional sources/alternate perspectives, we need to have some primary level of objectivity, that more traditional media structures used to provide, in our society that does not often isolate or comedically target a certain group.
    – Satya

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  3. Hi Currie,
    While I agree that poking fun at people might not be the best way to make a call for change, the question of how ethical this tactic is is more complex than it appears. On the surface, it is easy to say that this alienates a group of people and is not kind and therefore it is not ethical to show people in a negative light. However, if we view this issue from a utilitarian standpoint, the positive effects seem to outweigh the negatives. Even if people are put off by Oliver’s comments, the only people who are directly affected were the six men on Fox to whom Oliver was referring. When those six people are compared to the number of people who are learning about social issues because of Oliver’s wit and sense of humor, it is clear to see that it is ethical under the utilitarian school of thought.

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  4. Hi Currie,
    This article takes on an interesting outlook and was an informative read. Although Oliver sometimes makes some unsavory jokes, he does play a significant role in informing people on policy issues. However, I would make the argument that he does not really aim to inform the general public but rather those with left-leaning views. His formula of political comedy and commentary has been successful for six seasons, so he and his staff likely do not see the need to steer the show in a more objective direction.

    According to Kant’s categorical imperative, people must always treat others as subjects rather than objects. Making fun of someone strangely recognizes their humanity, thus I would not say that including a few unflattering jokes in among the news is fundamentally unethical. In any case, it is not enough to undermine the information and perspective he gives. Unfortunately, due to human influence, very little news is completely free of bias, so consumers have to consult multiple sources to garner a well-rounded understanding. While it would be wonderful to have an unbiased news source that is both humorous and educational, Oliver, Noah, and others in their vein still contribute beneficially to the public cognizance.

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  5. Thank you for a stimulating piece about the John Oliver effect, I had never heard it called that before but I knew exactly what it referred to when I started reading. I agree that comedians like John Oliver and Trevor Noah are good messengers of information for people who may not necessarily have the same time allowance or interest to read the news in detail regularly to be “in the know.” I also agree that ridiculing people may not be the best method, but it is effective as a way of easy blame for certain issues such as the prison dilemma you brought up. I think it relates also to the agenda that these late-night comedians are promoting, whether it is their personal views or not, which can be dangerous as a contributor to political polarization which is already too high in the world. For this reason, I like to use John Oliver etc to catch up with current events but also think about the other possible interpretations of what’s happening so I don’t also fall trap to this.

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  6. Hi Currie,

    Thank you for your post. As other comments have alluded to above, Oliver’s audience is primarily left-leaning. Hence, his polarizing humor can reinforce or inflame attitudes they may already hold toward those who are elsewhere on the political spectrum. On another note, while his ad hominem jokes may weaken his presentation, I don’t think they invalidate his arguments, so long as he presents accurate information and sound logic in addition to his humor.

    In response to your argument that his influence is neither productive nor ethical, I’d argue that it is productive in that members of Congress have affirmed that Oliver has helped win legislation votes and others have credited him with transforming the net neutrality debate. Analyzing the ethics of his approach is more complex; you can argue for or against it through utilitarianism, deontology, intellectualism, cultural relativism, situation ethics or other moral theories.

    —Alice

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  7. Currie,

    I have never heard of Oliver before, but the clip that you included in this piece was informative while still entertaining. I think that you are correct in wondering about the depth of policy change that one talk show host can have, and I share your thoughts, but I think it is important to also acknowledge the butterfly effect that John Oliver’s show must have on the lives of viewers. It is my understanding that not all those who sat down to watch the segment on prison labor already knew what Oliver was going to cover in the segment. Further, it is difficult for me to believe that each watcher was simply tuned in due to their desire to learn about prison labor. I am sure that many of them are simply fans of Oliver’s work, and would watch whatever he produces. Due to these facts, the method in which Oliver is able to inform the public in a non-threatening way through the use of humor is an effective way to inform its citizens, and as a result, likely change policy or at least alter the desires to see certain policies acted upon or not acted upon. I would be interested to see the “Oliver Effect” studied empirically to see its results on public opinion and policy.

    – Shannon

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