Nine Questions to Ask Before Using Humor in Ads

wheres beef

So, a guy walks into a bar and orders a Slurpo brand beer. (Were this an actual humorous commercial, I’d provide a punch line. As it’s only to make a point, I’ll ask a question.) Why did he order that particular beer?

Humor has the power to inspire and incite, defuse emotional time bombs and add new perspectives to old concepts. It can also diminish the credibility of a brand or misdirect attention from deceptive messages. Sometimes it’s taken too seriously and results in articles like this. Unless you are fluent in Meta-speak, click at your own risk. It’s insightful, but the antithesis of funny.

I’ve pored over several discussions on the subject, and here’s my net—and what I hope will be a useful guide for you.

1. How Do We Define Humor? In this instance, we’ll define humor as a device intended to make you laugh out loud, as opposed to cute, which only wants to make you feel good.

2. Do you have a serious brand? To state the obvious, humor isn’t for everyone. If you’re in health care, finance, government or another field from which people want respectability, humor will be tough to pull off. I used to think this about the legal profession, but the rise in goofy ads for lawyers makes me think it’s working for someone. (For you Breaking Bad fans: “Better call Saul.”) If you represent cell phones, laptops, fast food, lingerie or any consumer-oriented offering with a demonstrable benefit, you can go serious or funny, especially when drawing the humor from real life (think of Honda’s “Darth Vader” spot. If you want to sell beer, soda or other things with no tangible benefit, humor is probably your best choice. Or a song.

3. Does your audience have a sense of humor? Everyone enjoys a good laugh, but not all the time. Talking to cancer patients? Stick to serious. Talking to bored teenagers on almost any subject? Yuck it up. Consumers looking for information or trustworthiness usually want facts and might find humor frivolous. Is your viewer religious? Educated? Blue collar? Over weight? Are they one thing but aspire to another? Cornpone humor isn’t going to sell Armani suits, even if the potential buyer has every season of Hee Haw on DVD.

4. Can your agency produce humorous work? Humor is an art, one that not every creative person can perform. If your agency’s presentation doesn’t make you laugh, test it against representatives of that audience, if necessary. (See #5 also.)

5. Are you objective enough to entertain humor? Be honest with yourself. Is your sense of humor outside of mainstream? Are you not given to laughter? If you don’t ‘get’ the funny ad you’ve been asked to consider, can you see its potential for your audience? Can you try?

6. Who Used Humor Successfully? Gee, where to start. How about with the classic, “Where’s The Beef” for Wendy’s. It turned their business around and made them a major player in the hamburger/fast food category. How can you think of Budweiser without remembering the frogs or why the chicken crossed the road or a jillion others? Advertisers in almost every category have made humor work. Geico, McDonald’s, Lee Jeans, FedEx, etc. etc. Even Melbourne Metro in this train safety spot with 68,976,232 views currently.

7. Whose Funny Ads Failed? Clear Eyes, Casio and others show what NOT to do here.

8. What’s the Potential Risk? The biggest risk of humorous ads comes from the creativity overwhelming the message. Consumers might laugh till they cry, but not remember the advertiser or product, much less take action. The humor should be inextricable from the product and relevant to the message.

9. What’s the Potential Gain? Funny ads, when done right, make people feel good about the advertiser, increase memorability and can strike that richest of ad gold mines, viral social sharing—when funny seriously pays off.