But it’s an elusive thing, this humour, and until relatively recently, it was shunned by many brands as too risky. Humour is notoriously subjective, it doesn’t always translate, there’s the risk of causing offence, and you look bad when it backfires. Plus it’s hard to pin down why things make us laugh – or even to understand the theories – let alone learn how to emulate the best humour-makers.
But then again, we live today in a post-Innocent, post-Old Spice, post-King of Shaves world. And when even manufacturers of routers and providers of supply chain software are doing the funny, maybe it’s time to look again at upping our own comedy quotient.
So here are a few thoughts on what make things funny in marketing, with examples from brands that have personally made me, if not laugh, then at least smile broadly. Humour is notoriously subjective so in a piece like this I can only speak to what tickled me. (And before you dismiss my insights and my sense of humour out of hand, remember I was Asda Christmas Cracker Joke Champion in 2004.)
Key elements of the comedic toolkit
Caveat: Talking about funny is notoriously unfunny: ‘Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it,’ as EB White may have said. So sorry about that.
But at least I’m sparing you things like the ‘ontic-epistemic theory of humor’, which asserts that ‘laughter is a reaction to a cognitive impasse, a momentary epistemological difficulty, in which the subject perceives that Social Being itself suddenly appears no longer to be real in any factual or normative sense. When this occurs, material reality, which is always factually true, is the only percept remaining in the mind at such a moment of comic perception.’ Quite so, quite so.
Browsing the different theories of humour, however, several elements come up again and again.
- Identification: As in ‘That is so true!’
- Surprise / incongruity: As in ‘Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead’
- Transgression: A way of saying the unsayable, as in dirty jokes, jokes about cancer, most of Jimmy Carr and all of Frankie Boyle
- Relief: As when my wife laughs uncontrollably any time I bang my head (and the more it hurts, the funnier she finds it) — unless of course this is…
- Schadenfreude: The taking of pleasure in the misfortune of others
Social observation: McDonald’s
I think this ad would be funny whoever it was done by – or if it was just a comedy sketch without any promotional intent – though it happens to be from McDonald’s. It’s a pee-take of all those self-important hipsterish coffee bars that have taken over our city centres, with all their funny little rituals, indulgent gimmicks, and exorbitant prices.
Why is it funny? Identification: it’s just really well observed. It’s a spoof but only just, being full of lovingly created details we can all relate to, from the ping pong table where the seats should be to the obsessive foam-sculpting, to the haplessly hip barista mouthing the absurdly cosmic-sounding Wi-Fi passcode.
Funny parodic: GE
Some of the examples in this post are quite old, and that’s intentional. The only criterion for inclusion is that they made me smile or laugh on first seeing them.
But when you sit down and try to think of all the brands that have ever actually made you laugh or smile, there probably aren’t really that many, though we look at stuff that wants to make us smile or laugh all the time. So funny stuff sticks in the memory, like this Pinterest meme that GE launched back in 2013.
Why is it funny? The GE Hey Girl Pinterest board was obviously leapfrogging on the massive traction enjoyed by the Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling Tumblr. There’s humour in the incongruity of a vast global B2B brand dipping into popular (and implicitly profanity-fuelled) culture with such pitch-perfect ease, and without somehow ceasing to be itself.
The sweet spot on which the parody pivots is the idea of sexiness; you sense that GE, always keen to engage consumers and potential recruits, is sincere in its belief that science can be sexy too. Not quite as sexy as Ryan G perhaps, but then what is?
Guilty pleasures: Diet Coke and Cinnabon
‘Disgust,’ said yer man Salvador Dali, ‘is the sentry at the gate beyond which our darkest pleasures lie.’ You don’t have to be Freud (though Freud also said this) to see that one thing the funny does is to allow us to bypass our habitual internal censors and transgress norms in an acceptable way. It allows us to talk about things that in polite society are otherwise only thought.
Why is it funny? Those classic Diet Coke ads – ‘I’m here for my 11.30’ – are funny because we all know that the office, despite being on the surface a hub of serious business purpose, is also often a hotbed of (often unspoken) desire.
This ad turns the usual order of things on its head: here we see the erotic impulse trump the corporate imperative, if only briefly, and fantasy is liberated. This is funny because it’s unexpected, but also because everyone’s got the same idea. Desire, usually hidden and private, is here aired and shared.
Speaking at Comic Con 2015, Carrie Fisher said: ‘What’s so great about [Star Wars] is that I am a part of everyone’s childhood. I don’t necessarily love being part of all your adolescences. That’s kind of gross.’
That Princess Leia was a fantasy for males of a certain age is such a well-known thing there’s even a Friends episode about it. So when she died Cinnabon, the cinnamon bun people, saw an opportunity to reprise a bit of clever art work:
Before I thought anything else about this ad, I thought it was funny. It’s visually clever, and it taps into a well-recognised cultural phenomenon. It’s a humorous tribute to a famously humorous person.
Was it also tacky, ill-timed, inappropriate, opportunistic newsjacking? Certainly lots of people thought so, and after some communal brand-shaming on social media, the post was duly deleted and apologised for.
But a lot of other people thought Carrie Fisher – with her famously sardonic humour – would probably have seen the joke and maybe even enjoyed it.
Why is it funny? Because again, it’s transgressive. It’s alluding to erotic fantasy, a very specific guilty pleasure, making the private public once more. And it’s doing this at a time of death too, so tickling another taboo.
For things to be really funny in this way, there has to be an element of risk-taking. A sense of humour relies on us also having a sense of non-humour – an understanding of things that aren’t supposed to be laughed at. Transgressive humour – and here I’m more of a Lenny Bruce than a ‘You’re so moneysupermarket!’ man – dares to play with where we can draw that line.
Taking a risk, in short, means entertaining the possibility of a brand fail.
Comedy with a cause: Unison
Sometimes anger can fuel humour, and done well it can be a powerful way to highlight injustice. Here’s a great example where cause, concept, creative and celeb come together beautifully to make a powerful point about a serious concern.
Claire Sweeney takes up her old 60 Minute Makeover role in a video aimed at highlighting the fact that council cutbacks are forcing carers to cut short their residential visits. Claire gives harassed careworker Nisha just 15 minutes to get Frank, an elderly housebound man, washed, dressed and fed.
‘No time for small talk!’ scolds Claire, before insisting with callous breeziness that Nisha gives Frank his breakfast on the loo to claw back some time: ‘two birds, one stone!’
Why is it funny? The satire is viciously planned and executed – there’s a great match between format and concept to drive home the point that looking after a vulnerable person is exactly not the sort of thing you should have to do against the clock. And our Claire really goes for it.
So there’s incongruity here, but also transgression and perhaps eve schadenfreude: we laugh at things we shouldn’t find funny, like the indignities inflicted on Frank and the shortcuts Nisha is forced to make. And we can enjoy the dark humour because we know it’s all coming from a good place.
Laughter in the dark: Spotify
Soviet-era joke: A man puts a pair of shoes in for mending. ‘They’ll be ready two years on Thursday,’ says the cobbler. ‘Morning or afternoon?’ asks the man. ‘What on earth does it matter?!’ says the cobbler. ‘I’ve got the plumber in the afternoon,’ replies the man.
There are a lot of such jokes about and by people living through times of great adversity, and humour is an obvious coping mechanism to help reconcile people to an uncomfortable reality. There is more than a hint of this in Spotify’s job ad for a ‘President of Playlists’.
Why is it funny? While on one level this letter is a celebration of Obama’s presidency, and a neat piece of brand alignment with an outgoing leader with soaring approval levels, there is more than a hint of laughter in the dark to savour too, for those uncomfortable about an imminent Trump presidency.
Reading between the lines, indeed, the letter could be seen more as a critique of the incoming guy than a commemoration of the outgoing one: ‘As an organisation we are full of hope, and always open to change’… ‘[you’ll] analyse data […] in a clear and transparent manner using all available intelligence. Attend daily briefings […] celebrate our diversity of playlists, from Viva Latino to Rap Caviar… Able to work closely with departments, so playlists can hold up to public scrutiny […] someone with good team spirit, excellent work ethic, a friendly and warm attitude.’
Brave banter: Wendy’s, Paddy Power, Tesco Mobile
Many of the brands that do the funny well on social – Wendy’s, Innocent, Paddy Power etc – seem to have reached a point where they’ve genuinely ceased to think of themselves as a corporate entity and just communicate as individuals – with all their foibles and flaws (and even their F words), but also all their unique humour.
Paddy Power is a great example of this. It has cornered the market in banter, and just comes across as that funny mate you always watch the game with down the pub.
Why is this funny? Being banter, every line is a challenge asking for a response, making this a truly social form of social media. See here, for example, how a nice crack about Ozil (which even as an Arsenal fan I can appreciate) leads to a couple of sharp rebounds:
And there’s no room for compromise or for worrying about causing offence with this approach. Not everyone will like it, but that’s marketing for you, and that’s also why a banner like this will be extra funny to those that do enjoy it:
(This reminds me. Motorcycle News, I think it was, once ran an ad with a picture of a nun chained by her ankles to a huge motorbike, and chained by her wrists to another huge bike, each revved and ready to fly off in opposite directions. The heading ran something like this: ‘Subscribe to MCN now or the nun gets it..’)
In these times of populist, adversarial politics, Wendy’s seemed to have hit the Zeistpot with its uniquely rude approach to social media, which involves (among other things) trolling the likes of McDonald’s:
Why is it funny? The idea of trolling McDonalds is funny in itself, of course, and even funnier when it’s the spectacle of one corporate giant going up against another like a couple of kids in a playground. (Or rather only one is really playing, it seems; the only one doesn’t quite seem to know how to respond.)
There are several big brands doing a great job of humorously bantering their way through social conversations too, among them O2, Sainsburys, Argos and Tesco Mobile:
The people running these accounts are often great copywriters, witty, quick-thinking and adaptable. But above all, it seems to be me, they’ve been empowered to just get on with being their own funny selves.
For more on this topic, book yourself onto one of Econsultancy’s copywriting training courses, or check out these related articles: