Have marketers forgotten how to be funny?

A client walked into a bar...

With our March theme of humour we thought we should ask our network whether they think marketers have lost touch with comedy. And if so, where has their sense of humour gone? How do they get it back?

Emily Rich — lead strategist

Emily Rich

No, not all of us have forgotten how to be funny! There was a dark period where we forgot to be funny and got way too serious, but luckily, I think we’re emerging from the ‘pious’ marketing era. We paid our penance, and besides, no-one wants to be miserable anymore. Not least when there’s so much misery outside. We’re all in the business of brand love (or at least preference) and assuming a moral, superior position isn’t endearing within personal relationships, nor for brands. ‘But people demand purposeful brands’, do I hear you shout? Well, perhaps (the jury’s out here), but purpose isn’t at odds with humour. It’s not an either/ or scenario: take Deliveroo supporting The Trussell Trust food banks with a comically bad choir of minor celebs. Serious subject, funny execution. And humour needn’t be only for the big hitters or ‘sexy’ categories, Flo’s Period Drama campaign tells you that much. Lighten up. Because as they say, misery loves company.

Glenn Fisher — author, copywriter and speaker

Glenn Fisher

No, I don’t think so. At least, good marketers (and good advertisers more generally, be it copywriters, strategists, designers) regularly hit on funny ads. It may be there’s less unexpected comedy in advertising these days; the joke formulas used are relatively predictable and illicit more of a knowing laugh, rather than truly moving us with something that tickles in an unexpected way. If the most successful advertising connects on the most emotional level, striving for more unexpected and less predictable humour would help advertising connect in a better way and be more memorable. At the same time, when humour is used in advertising it should be relevant to the product or brand. Perhaps marketers are too quick to conclude ‘being random’ is the same as ‘being funny’. It’s never that simple.

Josh Akapo — Co-Founder and Head of Strategy at archtype

Josh Akapo

I do feel as though marketing has been trying too hard in recent years. Our fears of taking risks, getting it wrong and potentially facing public backlash (or, at least the kind that doesn’t increase the bottom line) has rendered our industry and the work it delivers to be a bit stale. We want to evoke emotions, yet we try to calculate formulas based on ‘robust data’ to deliver this. We want to connect to the very essence of humanity, yet we itemise our lived experiences down to trends. And yes, we want to be funny, yet we’re trying so hard at convincing the world that we’re capable of humour, so much so that we’re missing the point. It’s not about being able to predict how well a line of copy will resonate with X ‘demographic’, rather it’s about going with our gut to bring out the natural humour in the creativity that we should all possess. And how do we do that? Well maybe we should stop over-immersing ourselves in data that makes us feel safe, and frameworks that tell us what to do, and start being in the world and experiencing it for what it is. We’ll find the funny, naturally.

Eve Lily Young — Senior Creator and SocialMinds Podcast host at SocialChain

Eve Lily Young

No… traditional marketers are probably sick of hearing this, but just open TikTok and you’ll see that social marketers, at least, are leading brands to be funnier than ever. I’ve seen TV adverts lose their humour over time in favour of CSR messaging and heartfelt, piano-backed monologues — their answer to reading the nation’s mood post-Covid-19, I think. A lot of brands seem scared to be funny on the off chance they offend. What social marketers have done instead, is understand that the public mood often demands comedic relief. That being said, all brands and marketers could still be better at being funny, by not simply adopting that ‘funny brand voice’, and instead working to define the sense of humour of their unique brand persona.

Cassius Naylor — strategy advisor and Co-Director of Advocacy at Outvertising

Cassius Naylor

Short answer: no. Some brands manage to really nail it, for me. However, failures outnumber successes a hundredfold. The longer answer involves honing in on the phrase ‘for me’. Humour — being in the eye of the beholder — is an exercise in depth over width, and you need to identify and really understand the audience to achieve it. There is no point in trying to be funny to every or even most consumers, and there is nothing less amusing than ‘comedy by committee’. I’m at the cusp of the millennial-Gen Z divide, and though I won’t generalise for my entire cohort, my sense of humour is born from the most deranged internet meme culture, which itself is the by-product of rebellion against the world and its systems. That’s not easy for a corporate entity to get right. My advice for getting laughs from my generation? Give our established funny people a wide licence in how they do product placement or sponsorship for your brand. You need only look at the various products marketed by Trixie Mattel and Katya on their YouTube show to see this in action.

Lydia Mulkeen — MD at Wake the Bear

Lydia Mulkeen

Maybe. But perhaps the question should be, ‘Do marketers think that humour isn’t right for their brand or consumers right now?’ Marketers may not have forgotten to be funny, they may simply be actively choosing other emotional triggers to land their purpose, value or drive their desired behaviour. Humour is extremely subjective, and while avoiding it may feel boring, a misfired attempt at humour can be far more damaging, no matter how well meaning; just ask Burger King who belongs in the kitchen. However, when done well it’s unbelievably effective, with running jokes becoming part of everyday lexicon and doing your brand recall for you. Well done, Specsavers. Humour takes bravery, and therefore maybe the last few years of ‘permacrisis’ have resulted in the risk simply being too high for brands and potentially tone-deaf for consumers. That said, it could mean that humour has never been needed more. So for those brave enough to do it and do it well, the payback should be even bigger.

Shauna Moran — Trends Manager at GWI

Shauna Moran

With consumer attention split across an overwhelming number of media channels, capturing their attention is a mission and a half. Luckily, clever humour can get you far — according to our data a quarter of Brits most want ads to make them laugh, a number that’s grown by 13% since 2021. While tear-jerker ads have their place, many Brits crave a bit of light relief during these difficult times. Demand for funny material is even higher among the Brits most affected by high prices. I wouldn’t say that brands have forgotten how to amuse people, but with just 15% of Brits describing the ads they typically see on TV as funny, there’s definitely room for improvement.

Marc Allenby — Co-Founder and CCO at Hijinks

Marc Allenby

Absolutely not. Some of the best comedy ads I’ve seen of late were for this year’s Super Bowl. For me, the US does comedy brilliantly. It’s balanced, smart, non biased and not sexist. It’s entertaining and fun. I think the marketers for those brands (Uber, Paramount, Doritos etc) clearly understand their audience, have confidence in their intentions and, of course, have brilliant creative partners who understand comedy. Comedy does not have to be LOL. It needs to amplify the brand’s tone and play into the vibe of its audience. It needs to be beautifully made, avoid stereotypes and anything which will offend; comedy should be positive and feel good. When done well these ads become modern-day pieces of pop culture: sixty seconds of comedy gold which are shared and loved. They create fame for the brand, and reach out to audiences beyond their core. To conclude: we can learn a lot and be inspired by the comedy brilliance coming out of the US.

David Wethey — author and speaker

David Wethey

It’s a great question. We live in a funny world that has turned on its head since I joined the ‘mad men’ in 1968. Once war was over and propaganda buried with the gas masks, advertising became the conduit for clients to communicate with a light touch. Humorous ads were engaging banter. It wasn’t about belly laughs, so much as using wit to make brands likeable and accessible. Reader’s Digest had a regular feature called Laughter Is The Best Medicine, but sadly humour seems to have become cancelled by the woke tendency. Laughter is stigmatised for laughing at people. Humour is seen to be non-inclusive, anti-diverse, and inappropriate. It’s ironic really. Life has become increasingly brutal with threats from war, disease, climate change, poverty and so many horrible things. A sense of humour has never been more needed. Yet marketing and marketing communications are incredibly dull. Social engineering and political correctness have taken over. Let’s put a smile on our face and get back to selling stuff in an appealing way.

Vicky Janaway — Chief Client Officer at The Gate London

Vicky Janaway

Maybe. Those clever folks at System 1 have shown emotion can be used to great effect, and not just that ‘tugging at heart strings with an up-and-coming artist singing over a film of a cute kid’ type stuff. Indeed, it’s heartening to see that when humour is used campaigns perform even better. Yet I’m a maybe answering this question, because whilst many marketers, including Will Harrison (our wonderful client at The AA) knows humour works in advertising, it takes the brave and the bold to let humour in, have some fun and maybe release the shackles (a little) on those RTBs. Marketers and agencies haven’t forgotten how to be funny, it’s just that maybe things like pandemics and cost of living crisis can get in the way. But the best way to create highly effective work that isn’t category generic, is to be bold, be brave, but most of all funny. 

Featured image: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels