Why marketers shouldn’t always strive to be the funnyman

Have you heard the one about the marketer who tried to make his ads funny like everyone else? His campaign was a joke that went down with consumers like a lead balloon.  With the deluge of attempted humour in marketing communications, there is a new wisdom that suggests when everyone else is “zigging”, your brand should try to “zag”.


Brands from O2 to Confused.com and Cadbury are attempting humour in their current UK advertising campaigns – some raising more laughs than others.

Paddy Power is famed for its successful, ballsy, sometimes risque, always humorous marketing campaigns – from ambushing Euro 2012 via a pair of Nicklas Bendtner’s underpants to its most recent mischievous effort at The Ashes: beaming an image of Captain Cook on The Oval’s pitch with text stating “Captain Cook: civilising Aussies since 1770”.

Paul Sweeney, Paddy Power’s head of brand, says “sharing is caring” is a motto that has never been more applicable for brands and that “entertainment” is Paddy Power’s “secret sauce”.

He adds: “Funny works, you only have to look at how many pieces of brilliant content are being uploaded every day or the recent Comedy Week on YouTube to know that making people laugh is one of the best ways to engage them.”

Paddy Power Captain Cook Ashes

Further afield, the majority of brands advertising during this year’s Super Bowl also aimed to create funny content.

Ads must be “extremely funny”, however, to illicit the strong psychological responses that are linked to sentiment and purchase intent as audiences have been subjected to a “glut” of humorous attempts from marketers, according to a white paper from Unruly Media.

The Super Bowl ads that were the least shared on social media were those that triggered low levels of hilarity and surprise and also caused viewer confusion as an unintentional outcome, the report claims. In fact, the most shared ad, Budweiser’s Brotherhood, performed strongly because of the intense feelings of sadness – and not a joke in sight.

Lysa Hardy, chief marketing officer at Holland and Barrett owner NBTY Europe and the former T-Mobile head of brand responsible for its famous “Life’s for Sharing” ads, says if brands set out to write a funny script the end result can appear “contrived”. Sometimes, however, “it can just happen” and marketers should be flexible to be able to include natural humour in their creative output.

Holland and Barrett’s first ad, for example, was an animation that had a lot of activity crammed into the frame. In the background a hedgehog character is seen being kicked between two squirrels.

“People found it quite funny so now we’ve carried on that theme where something happens to the hedgehog in each ad. It’s only in the background but it’s great for those who notice it,” Hardy says.

“[Similarly], my brief a T-Mobile was to make people smile. So keeping it simple was key and the ad wasn’t about making people laugh, but in filming there are moments that viewers relate to as they’re real people in the ads. It’s good to not take yourself too seriously and overstate your importance as a brand in people’s lives,” she adds.

It is a commonly held belief that the best marketing perfectly combines art and science. John Townshend, creative partner at ad agency Now – which counts Butlins, Petplan, BT Business and Florette among its clients – says its the art that makes humorous ideas fly.

Using Cannes Lions 2013 Grand Prix winner Metro Trains Australia’s “Dumb Ways to Die” as an example, Townshend says it was not just the combination of a brutal story with childlike animation and music that made it successful. It was the arrangement of notes, wit of the animation, nuances of the words – together – that made it “magic”, and there is no “formula” with which to make such combinations.

Townshend adds: “I think the point about [avoiding] humour is relevant because everyone’s trying to do it – and that’s why the more serious ad may have cut through in the Superbowl. You can’t say forget humour, but you can have a good principle that says: ‘when everyone zigs, zag’, which is [BBH co-founder] John Hegarty’s mantra – and he ain’t no scientist.”

Hardy agrees on the point that marketing is a science and art, but says some marketers can get pulled too far in that direction, chasing the plaudit of the next best thing since the “Yeo Valley Farmers” or “Volkswagen Star Wars” ads.

She adds: “The viral thing of something being really funny can be quite faddish – while it works quickly, it’s hard for it to hold residence. And does that drive sales? I’m not so sure, so many brands try [hilarity] and so few get away with it.”

Humour is a fickle beast and can easily fall flat. By breaking away from the pack and playing on different emotional triggers – Unruly suggests warmth, happiness, pride and awe – marketers can continue to play to the crowd, without the unwanted heckles.



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