The power of humour in marketing

In 1923 Claude Hopkins wrote a book called Scientific Advertising that sold in enormous quantities and influenced generations of marketers. Admirer David Ogilvy, the British advertising tycoon and founder of Ogilvy and Mather, once declared, “Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until [they have] read this book seven times.” It is so iconic it’s even featured in an early episode of Mad Men when budding copywriter Peggy Olson is spotted studying its pages before setting off for work as Don Draper’s overworked PA.

Despite writing in the Roaring ’20s, when carefree Americans were kicking their heels to jazz, drinking highballs and learning to use fabulous new gadgets like radios and washing machines, Hopkins had a dour message. “Don’t lessen respect for yourself or your article by any attempt at frivolity,” he cautioned. “There are two things about which [people] should not joke. One is business, one is home. One may gain attention by wearing a fool’s cap. But he would ruin his selling prospects.”

And, it seems, more of today’s marketers are nodding along in agreement. A recent analysis of 200,000 global advertisements by UK researchers, Kantar, revealed a grim drop in the use of humour. In 2004 more than half (53%) of ads were humorous or light-hearted – or at least tried to be, according to the report – but by 2020 the number attempting to tickle the funny bone had dropped to a third (34%).

Laughing all the way to the awards ceremony

A marketing strategy clearly needs to reflect the nature of the brand but surely, if we really are using humour less, then we ought to have a rethink. In fact, the trend should be reversed. That’s certainly the case if you look at the number of awards handed out to funny ads at annual ceremonies. Take Cannes Lions, the prestigious five-day International Festival of Creativity. An analysis of their award-winning ads before and after the financial crash in 2008 revealed 72% involved the use of humour.

And it’s no surprise. For starters, advertising is about attracting and retaining attention, creating emotional attachments and memories, and humour is one of the most natural and powerful strategies we have. Humour is also linked to higher memory recall. The human brain responds quickly to humour… just so long as it’s genuinely amusing and makes us laugh or smile rather than frown dismissively! A funny fail, of course, is a marketing disaster.

Secondly, as we don’t all share the same sense of humour, a brand’s marketing strategy – and the form of humour it communicates – is a great way of cutting through to the desired tribe or demographic. It allows differentiation. Humour can be silly, slickly like Heineken, punny and word-based like Compare the Market, a tongue-in-cheek story like Kia’s 2013 Super Bowl ad and much more. You simply need to work out what’s best for your brand.

The use of humour can also be adapted to resonate with the brand and its audience as they develop over time. From these classic favourites, which tribe might you have wanted to join? Smash in the 1970s? Starburst Berries & Cream in 2006? Old Spice in 2010?

Humour can be tasteful medicine

Lastly, when life is challenging, laughter is a great way to get the endorphins going. The pandemic has been seriously gloomy. And the tight purse strings of the cost-of-living crisis presents another unpleasant challenge. So perhaps it’s time for marketers to offer us all a well-earned and timely smile.

Certainly, this year’s Super Bowl brands thought so. Humour was back with a bang after the years of COVID. And if you’ve paid $6.5 million for an advertising spot you want to make sure the tone is just right. That you have captured the zeitgeist. As Forbes contributor Toni Fitzgerald pointed out: “This year, with the pandemic stretching longer than most people imagined two years ago, commercials serve as a distraction and a balm.”

While the Rams and Bengals recovered in their changing rooms, Idris Elba’s clever-funny-serious ad for delivered humour and a very concise brand message. It showed that it’s easy to talk about serious and practical matters – booking trips online demands functionality, trust and not much else – using a light touch. It’s also interesting to recall that Elba was a seriously bad guy in The Wire.

There was no let-up in the entertainment when the ads started. If you hire Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen for an ad you can be pretty confident it will be funny. No surprises, then, that Lay’s Stay Golden was a success. Snappy, surprising and shot almost like the comedy movie trailer, it ticks all the right funny boxes. For a humble crisp. The perfect half-time snack. It proves being funny is a very serious business.

Looking to incorporate the appropriate amount of humour into your advertising campaigns? Contact us to learn about how we can help.

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