There’s a pervasive fear of being funny amongst B2B marketers who continue to disregard the reality that humor isn’t inherently offensive, our unfiltered thoughts are.

Humor is the vehicle that delivers a message. It’s a means of strategic communication. By asking the question ‘What’s the purpose of this joke?’, it’s more readily apparent that the main goal of humor isn’t to be funny, it’s to communicate a message with targeted intention.

While humor is shown to be a relatively stable personality trait, individuals vary in their approaches to leveraging humor in day-to-day life, with different styles of humor resulting in different outcomes.

In 2003, researchers developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) as a way to understand individual differences in humor usage by segmenting humor into four distinct styles: affiliative, aggressive, self-enhancing, and self-deprecating humor.

The HSQ is designed for individuals, but marketers can extrapolate and apply these findings to their brand management efforts. After all, brands are quasi-human, or at least their loving marketing masters like to think so.

By taking a closer look at these four distinct styles of humor, we can recognize how the intention of a joke is often reflected in the outcome it evokes. Cue the ‘Oh come on, I was only kidding’ line.

No, you weren’t.

HSQ’s Four Styles of Humor

Affiliative humor is used to enhance relationships. This style of humor is used to charm, entertain, ease tensions, and improve relationships through its wholesome roots in kindness and compassion. The witty banter that often comes with affiliative humor can feel like a spa day for the soul.

For brands, there are a plethora of opportunities to apply affiliative humor in marketing efforts to improve relationships with clients, prospects, and audiences. But that’s not all – brands can also use affiliative humor to enhance the customer’s relational understanding of a subject matter with clever analogies.

In 2014, ZenDesk leveraged affiliative humor with their campaign ‘Relationships are Complicated’, which drew parallels between communication challenges in both business and personal relationships – a perfect analogy for the customer service platform provider.

Another example of affiliative humor is Ondyr, an SEO agency that helps companies to leverage schema markup in order to ‘trick out’ their Google search results. That might sound technical, but the concept is simplified when made analogous to the popular MTV show, “Pimp My Ride”. [Disclaimer: This is my own work through my company Bright Humor]


Aggressive humor is used to criticize and attack. Sarcasm, put-downs, teasing, ridicule, and threats all fall into the aggressive category of humor, in which the punchline comes at the expense of others. Aggressive humor is not always a bad thing, as it can be used to voice a sense of urgency, point out inconsistencies in logic, or call out hypocrisies.

Brands shouldn’t write off aggressive humor completely, but marketers must be careful when employing it. To avoid the backlash of aggressive humor, brands must target thoughtfully. That means choosing a target that’s a known ‘enemy’ of your brand’s approach or mission. This is commonly done by going after ‘the other guys’ – i.e. competitors and antiquated systems and approaches that are oppositional to a brand’s value proposition. Politicians love this approach.

Aggressive humor might be the approach to take for connecting and resonating with individuals who hold similar beliefs. Just ensure that market research supports your stance and focus your attack on the extreme of a view in order to minimize offense and maximize emotional resonance with your target audience. When applying aggressive humor, consider multiple perspectives with a healthy dose of empathy.

Great satire uses these techniques. Tom Fishburne, The Marketoonist, is a good example from our industry. In this cartoon he targets the fast food industry (and CPG marketers more broadly) for their focus on branded content over product.

A pro tip for leveraging aggressive humor is to utilize benevolent copy to offset the darkness of a joke.

Self-deprecating humor is used to gain approval. This style of humor is at one’s own expense. Done well, self-deprecating humor projects humility and a degree of self-awareness. Executed poorly or too frequently, this style of humor can project insecurity.

For brands, self-deprecating humor can be used as a way to take responsibility for an error, such as a website outage or product glitch. Additionally, brands can use this style of humor launching to market, rebranding, or shifting business approach, or as a lead-in for addressing an unfavorable reality.

In 2015, iStock by Getty images took the opportunity to poke fun at itself and stereotypical stock photography by partnering with Twentieth Century Fox to release a series of stock images featuring the cast of Unfinished Business prior to the film’s release.

Self-enhancing humor is used to cope and regulate emotions. By finding amusement in the absurdities of this wild world, self-enhancing humor seeks to find the bright side of a bad situation. By searching for optimism, one can maintain a sense of hope that better times are ahead, despite a news cycle that eternally suggests otherwise.

Despite the fact that self-enhancing humor is regarded as a positive style of humor that’s beneficial to a person’s overall wellbeing, brands should think twice before deploying this style of humor. That’s because seeing the bright side of a bad situation is a personal choice, making the interpretation of this style of humor highly subjective to audiences.

An example of self-enhancing humor would be a person saying “I was laid off on my birthday, but on the bright side, I got to leave work early to celebrate!”

Now imagine a company saying, “We are going through layoffs, but on the bright side, less birthdays to remember next month!”

That would be nuclear.

The big risk for using self-enhancing humor in marketing communications is being perceived as glib or callous for making light of a serious situation.

In summary

Context and cultural differences need to be taken into consideration across all humor styles, along with other important audience demographics. Thoughtfulness and a strong internal review process should be the foundation of any humorous marketing campaign.

It goes without saying that humor can backfire, as Spirit Airlines learned all too well after their 2010 campaign ‘check out the oil on our beaches’ following the BP oil spill, a massive environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, by recognizing the intention behind humor, marketers can step out from behind the curtain of fear to more thoughtfully create high-impact marketing messaging that resonates with audiences, in turn, converting more customers.

Tim Washer, the former Creative Director behind Cisco’s The Perfect Gift for Valentine’s Day (see below), had this to say to Newscred about humor in content marketing:

“Humor in content marketing is important. It really plays the same role in content marketing that it does in entertainment – it helps the company (essentially the content creators) stand out, get noticed, and build an audience. From the audience standpoint, it makes the content interesting, easier to understand, and overall, more exciting. People appreciate and are grateful for humorous content that informs – especially in our fast-paced society.”

After all, there’s nothing to fear about passionately standing behind the beliefs of your brand. Just keep those unfiltered thoughts to yourself.

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