Earlier this year, Adam Ferrier, consumer psychologist and a founding partner of Naked Communications, wrote a post that claimed humor in advertising doesn't work. Looking at the recent gaffes by LawFirms.com, Pepsi, and Toyota, we draw a different conclusion. Most advertising humor isn't funny.
“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.” — Oscar Wilde
In truth, there have been scores of studies conducted on humor in advertising over the past 25 years. One of the most famous was conducted by Paul Speck back in 1987. He found that humorous ads increased initial attention, sustained attention, and retention. (You can find his dissertation here.)
Add to this early work: a Clear Channel presentation about outdoor advertising that revealed humor outperformed straightforward by as much as 3:1; most estimates suggest 80 percent of viral success stories include humor; and a new study conducted by Madelijn Strick from the Radboud University in Nijmegen, Holland that concludes comedy is important to have a positive impact on customers. There are hundreds more.
So, if the problem isn't funny, what is the problem with funny? The problem seems to be that funny has to be funny to work. Unfunny, on the other hand, only creates negative impressions. And unfortunately, unfunny is much more commonplace as advertising writers seem to have forgotten that marketing humor doesn't enjoy the same liberties as entertainment writing.
Six Guidelines To Finding Funny For Advertising
The first rule of advertising is that there are no rules. Divergent thinking has always sold and will continue to sell. However, there are guidelines that can help reduce the risk of producing an unfunny campaign that backfires like those mentioned yesterday.
Guideline 1: Funny Is Inclusive, Not Exclusionary
All three backfires have an exclusionary construct. They attempt to be funny at the expense of others. Marketing humor works best when it's inclusive — when we laugh at ourselves or with a group we belong to. (If Motrin made baby carriers, they may have escaped the wrath of angry moms).
Guideline 2: Funny Rolls Uphill, Not Downhill
Two of the backfires make fun of stereotypes that are perceived to be "inferior" to the position of the teller. For advertising, comedy is better positioned to roll uphill. Illegal aliens can make fun of lawyers, but lawyers cannot make fun of Illegal aliens.
Guideline 3: Funny Is Contextual
Context isn't everything, but it always counts. There have been several people making the context case lately, but the idea has been around awhile. The message, medium, and moment are all important when it comes to funny. Two of the backfires miss this idea entirely.
Guideline 4: Funny Is Situational
When people make mistakes, making fun of the mistake might be funny. For example, making fun of United Airlines' mistake is funny. Political gaffes are funny. Big business missteps are funny. However, always keep in mind that what is funny today may not be funny tomorrow. One backfire, for example, tried a joke two years too late.
Guideline 5: Funny Is Relative
When a character that people can relate to becomes the brunt of the joke, it might be funny. That's why marketing that makes fun of office settings tend to work. No one is really singled out, and many of us can relate as an audience. All three backfires never consider their relation to the audience. The humor might make them laugh, but nobody else is really laughing.
Guideline 6: Funny Is About Constraint
Advertising humor also works best when it shows some constraint. If people talk about a joke but cannot remember the product or service, you lose. All three backfires seem to disassociate themselves from the humor. In fact, one backfire does it so well that most of their gags were passed over by consumers. (Nobody really friended their fake MySpace accounts.)
But beyond all that, humorists also need to remember that funny is hard work. Off-the-cuff quips that come up in a creative session seldom make the cut. They have to be worked, reworked, and worked again. That said, here are three five-second solutions that my have played better than what those unfunny writers cooked up (because that's all the time we had).
Legal Advice Without An Argument? There's An App For That. LawFirms.com
Or, related in subject matter. We Won't Chase You For A Change. Immigration Advice. LawFirms.com
Lesson: Making fun of clients is not funny. Making fun of your profession might be funny.
Play A Prank On Toyota. The Matrix
Lesson: A car company playing pranks on people is not funny. Playing pranks on a car company might be funny.
Life's Too Short. Amp Up When They Shoot You Down. Pepsi
Lesson: Taking advantage of a nerdy girl is not funny. Being shot down by one might be funny.
Get it? Sure, humor is subjective, which is why it can be risky. But when writers consider a few simple guidelines, smart and unexpected humor in advertising can potentially be successful, sustainable, and have a shot at going viral.