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How do you solve a problem like... making ads funny again?

How do you persuade clients to crack a joke every now and then?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This time, we discuss the secret to good advertising humor.

One of our columnists took a bit of a pot-shot at ‘cause’ marketing last week. In short, he asks that marketers seeking to stick out from the crowd rediscover their funny bones.

Humor has always been a great way to stand out. Most of the public’s ‘best-loved’ ads are the ones that make them laugh, and despite the fact that consumer surveys tell us punters want to hear from brands with purpose, we know they’re also getting tired of slam poetry about savings accounts.

So, how do you lend a previously po-faced brand a sense of humor? What’s the secret to getting someone to spit out their tea during the Love Island ad break?

How do you solve a problem like... making ads funny again?

Trevor Robinson OBE, founder and executive creative director, Quiet Storm

Unfortunately, brands just don’t have an appetite for funny at the moment. So even though the audience could really do with a laugh right now, everyone seems to be avoiding humor, and I think it’s a lot to do with fear.

Firstly you need talented people who can do it; those who are naturally funny. Creatives must be let loose in exploring what makes them laugh. Secondly, you need a collaborative client and agency relationship where people are willing to take risks together and realize that you can make people like you if you can make people laugh – a bit like making friends.

Sarah Leccacorvi, head of content and creative, Havas Entertainment

Worthiness and comedy shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Brands should be bold enough to deliver purpose in a more culturally contextual way. Look at TV comedies such as Ricky Gervais’s After Life, which has connected with audiences who have experienced a similar tragedy by using dark humor and a non-clichéd approach. In a similar vein, the BBC show Motherland makes light of things that really matter in a way that not only makes sense but makes people laugh.

Agencies and brands should take note of these examples from the world of entertainment and aim to create work that communicates purpose without being too serious.

Billy Faithfull, chief creative officer, Engine Creative

Comedy is a risk. You have to stick your neck out. Like telling a joke at a party, and the whole room tunes in. Apart from a brief flash of flailing gammon from the anti-woke crowd, there’s little risk in cause marketing. Our echo chamber is almost guaranteed to say it’s ‘so brave’. But ask most people to take a punt on a gag, a little slapstick, or some light shenanigans, and many run for the hills.

Most people in the business take themselves quite seriously. Those that don’t and like their necks in the sun are rewarded with being remembered in the back of cabs, fucking insane System 1 results, and commercials that reflect them.

Tasmin Lobley, senior art director, Waste

Real human insight. Our lives are filled with fun things that happen to us daily. I don’t go an hour without laughing at a new ‘relatable’ meme and sending it to all three of my friends. The key is finding those ‘moments’ and making them unique to your brand. By tapping into what makes your audience laugh, you can make your brand seem more human and create a more meaningful relationship.

In the words of men from Hinge, people like brands that ‘don’t take themselves too seriously’.

Swen Morath, chief creative officer, Wunderman Thompson Switzerland

Social responsibility became a major force of attraction on society, on brands and on creatives. These topics will stay important but will lose their status as a differentiating communication theme. After difficult times, we look for positivity. So creatives should allow themselves to be funny again.

When our Swiss team said, “We want to brew a beer with the water from the melted ice of a hockey rink”, everybody looked at us as if we were being ridiculous. And everybody had a smile. To bring these ideas to life, you need to be very persistent. But it’s worth it. Be ridiculous.

Rachel ‘Rom’ O’Malley, senior creative, FleishmanHillard UK

We just need to stop taking everything so seriously. Seriously, it’s exhausting. We’ve becoming indoctrinated to gravitas as the default creative position. While there will always be a time and a place for gravitas, bringing humor into a campaign doesn’t have to make it irreverent (although do read the room beforehand), but it does make serious messaging more palatable and more memorable.

If a brief like the one that resulted in #SaveSalla had been approached with the same seriousness as any other climate change campaign, it wouldn’t have had the same impact or picked up as many Lions.

Sean Thompson, founder and creative partner, Who Wot Why

Telling jokes is hard. If you don’t get a laugh, you’ve failed. A good joke needs time to tell, and ads are short.

My advice is to build the idea from the product and tell one joke well. The set-up is crucial. Introduce the characters, the situation, the premise. Give it air, pauses with time to react, and give it a pay-off that is surprising. Don’t play it for laughs, play it deadpan.

Now comes the harder part – you need a client who gets comedy. If they don’t, sell the ad as entertainment in a world that needs cheering up. And get them drunk.

Becky McOwen-Banks, executive creative director, VaynerMedia London

Funny? Who doesn’t need funny right now? If the last year hasn’t driven us to distraction, we certainly need an injection of humor to get through. Surely, as Brits, humor is our best cultural weapon – whether at ourselves or as a wider national moment (it certainly gets you through that awkward small-talk stage at parties).

Advertising is no different. Ads should reflect life and harness culture. Humor is (and has always been) a supercharged way of cutting through and connecting. It used to be down to part art, part luck and part timing, but now brands need to be even more innovative and lucky if they want to win big.

Successful brands today use social channels to join in the conversations, recognize what is already turning giggles to guffaws and see how they can continue the comedy – enabling a cultural moment that supercharges the funny factor.

Adam Chasnow, chief creative officer, Fortnight Collective

Good comedy doesn’t require the comprehension that a brand anthem does. The reward is endorphins instead of an education about a brand’s purpose or shared values with consumers. Often good comedy will be more than a joke – it will be relevant because it’s based on a truth about society.

As far as the pandemic goes, the floodgates for making funny campaigns again broke with last year’s Super Bowl ads, including great celeb-laden work such as Will Ferrell’s GM electric car stuff, Uber Eats’s Wayne’s World and Amazon’s Michael B Jordan spot for the new Echo. Of course, Super Bowl is live TV at its best. But with pre-roll and mid-roll not allowing cord-cutters to skip ads as easily, we are finding ourselves back in the heyday of linear television and the responsibility to get consumers (and a laugh) is on us again.

Jeff Hornung, creative director, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP)

Everyone knows the best jokes are the ones that need to be explained. So let me walk you through it. Making people laugh is hard. And if your goal is to do that, and they don’t, the ad is a flop. Let me keep walking you through it – Jim Henson, the Muppets guy, started in ads (like every genius) and his formula for his commercials was to just kill one of the characters at the end. It was funny. Nowadays, the funny stuff gets killed for more product, which is less funny. See, told you it’d be funnier if I explained it.

Nicole Brandell, chief strategy officer, FCB Chicago

The best thing a brand can do for their customers right now is to make them laugh. Life is heavy enough and our feeds are filled with negativity and injustice. A moment of humor from a brand you love is a welcome reprieve.

That said, cancel culture is real. Understandably, marketers don’t want to risk being insensitive or inappropriate. But if your communications are thoughtfully made by a talented and diverse team, you can put a smile on your customers’ faces and build your brand at the same time.

Brands that embrace comedy are memorable, likable and successful. Humor has the power to break through the clutter and get your customer’s attention. Funny is insightful and shows a relatable side of your brand. Laughter releases dopamine, leaving a positive impression of your message. And if you make your brand a part of the punchline, it will be top of mind the next time they need your product or service. So don’t be afraid to be funny.

Malcolm Poynton, global chief creative officer, Cheil Worldwide

I once saw a math equation that read: “Tragedy + Time = Comedy.”

What it didn’t say was what amount of tragedy or time you needed to get comedy.

Post 9/11, Time = 18 months (+/- X months).

Today, social media has shortened ‘Time’ to just a few months.

Ironically, that may be a good thing given laughter is a physical reaction consisting usually of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system. Strengthening our lungs is exactly what’s needed in the face of a respiratory virus.

So the bigger question for brands today is not ‘when to make ads funny again’ but if they have the right ‘personality for consumers to accept their humor’.

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