Strategies for Effectively Using Humor
Quick! What’s your favorite commercial?
Me, I go for the funny ones. Dollar Shave Club, with the casually hilarious CEO making his rounds. The Direct TV series of ads telling us why we should get rid of cable, in the vein of the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” children’s books. And of course, the often uproarious commercials aired during the Super Bowl.
Funny ads and commercials stick with us because they’re entertaining and usually quite clever. And if they don’t have you rolling so much in the aisles that you forget which product they’re pitching, their return on investment shows up very nicely in their financial reports.
Face it: we’re bombarded with media from all sides. Everyone and everything is clamoring for our attention and our wallets. Humor is a great way to break through all the chatter and get noticed.
It’s not limited to commercial ads. Humorous blog posts, insightful but funny stories, single panel cartoons with a poignant message told with a wink of irony – all can be informative, entertaining, and eminently shareable with the right, targeted audiences.
Not everyone will find everything funny. That’ll never happen – we’re all too different as people, with our own senses of humor, colored by experience, culture, and our internal wiring. But we can tailor our message and its delivery to our core intended audience. (Cue market research, if you haven't already, to find out who those people are!)
The first question is: who are you trying to sell to? It’s pointless to try to cast a net as wide as possible if you don’t know what you’re trying to catch. Know your target audience, their pain points, and what they can see as a potential solution. Even if they don’t realize that they have a problem yet.
The second point to consider is the tone your target audience will best respond to. Is it casual and informative, like a good friend making a personal recommendation? Is it knowledgeable and authoritative, coming from a trusted medical professional? Or is it humorous and insightful, perhaps even tongue in cheek, like a funny story passed along? Whichever approach you choose, be sure that it’s on brand with your company and product. A silly, slapstick ad may be kind of fun, but if you’re a traditional company and want to refine, not dramatically alter, your image, you may want to rethink your decision in favor of a more sedate type of visual. Like anything else, people react to the packaging more than the content. And surprises when the content doesn’t match up to the packaging lead to many more disappointments than appreciation. In business terms, that means sales can go down. Way down.
Finally, consider the medium of the message. TV or radio commercial? Social media campaign? Print or digital delivery? Match it to the size of your targeted audience - and the size of your budget.
Statistically, marketing that entertains does pretty well. There are higher click rates on items deemed useful and content that is enjoyable to watch or interact with. If you can combine both in your campaigns, you’re off to a good start! And assuming that you’re on target with your intended audience and the message and tone are on point, then you should enjoy a fairly effective campaign.
A humorous approach designed to entertain AND inform naturally does the following:
1. Brand differentiation – the message is attention grabbing, typically colorful and always original. Even if it’s a parody of an existing well-known brand or icon, the approach is unique and memorable.
2. Humanizing your product – anthropomorphic or animated animals and household items lend humor and break down barriers between the audience and what they may otherwise view as ho-hum products. Think of the Geiko gecko and insurance, Aflac’s ubiquitous quacking duck, and Charmin’s toilet-paper loving bear family (and before that, Mr. Whipple pleading with shoppers to not squeeze the Charmin!).
3. More memorable – translates to highly creative. If you watched “Mad Men,” you know that fictional Don Draper’s job was to think up outside-the-box, ahead-of-their time marketing ideas. The show even gave him credit for creating the iconic 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop” ad, better known as the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial, which spawned a full-length pop music hit.
Other memorable ads that linger on long past their original air dates feature characters, jingles, and punch lines like McDonald’s clown Ronald McDonald and the ingredients to make its Big Mac (“two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun”), and the slogan “You deserve a break today at McDonald’s.”
4. Shareable – long before peopled like to share, repost, retweet funny bits, we sang the jingles, talked about our favorites, and bonded over the common pop culture that they contributed to. Depending on your generation, I’m sure that there are certain commercials that you and your peers both remember quite well. They reconnect you with past memories of your youth and the nation's earlier days and the events that were taking place then. Touchstones and talking points that you’ll always have.
All's not song and sunshine, though. There are pitfalls, the most important warning being this:
When creating and sharing humorous marketing campaigns, make sure that there’s nothing offensive, off-color, inappropriate, childish, unprofessional, or inappropriate to your audience, brand, or any culture or religious group! In the past, cutting humor could take a stab at any or all of the above, but NOTHING will pass muster these days. You’ll only risk causing a great deal of damage to your brand, product, service, company, and/or reputation. Needless to say, that’s NOT good marketing.
So, to put on my “mother” hat: have fun, but be careful out there. There’s still plenty of wickedly good fun to be had in (relatively) clean, family-oriented advertising.