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How do you solve a problem like... putting the laughter back into ads?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

August 4, 2021 | 12 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, we carry on the discussion and ask how creatives can make ads funny again.

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How can creatives make ads worth laughing at again?

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?

That’s the question we posed to industry experts and agency creatives last week – and we had so many strong opinions that we’ve decided to run the debate in two parts. So here’s the sequel.

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

jordan morris

Jordan Morris, creative, M&C Saatchi

Humor in advertising should be inspired by where your audience are getting their laughs from. Currently, the advert break isn’t the place to go – TikTok is winning. So brands should be looking at what’s stealing people’s attention away from ads, and behaving more like it, or at least adopting a few features from it. Two main elements of TikTok videos are comedy and the music or audio that accompanies it, both used very well by the adverts getting cut-through on TV. This informed the thinking behind our latest GambleAware spot, with humor at its heart and stand-out audio.

rosie may bird smith

Rosie May Bird Smith, creative, Havas London

Funny scripts only get made if you present them to clients. And that’s where we’re going wrong as an industry. We’re making the assumption that ‘funny just isn’t their tone of voice’, and so censoring out the absurdity before it even gets to them. On the rare occasion that a funny script manages to make it to the client, you often find that they’re bang up for something other than a rhyming manifesto ad.

Oh, and also – we need a chat with our award shows. How can we expect creatives to keep churning out funny when the only stuff that gets rewarded or even recognised in coverage is worthy work? I know we’re all trying to save our souls, but it might be time to get down from our very high horses, try to actually engage viewers and remember that, sometimes, we’re just selling loo roll.

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Ewan Paterson, chief creative officer, MullenLowe Group UK

Imagine this scenario. You say to Joe/Jo Punter: “Did you know the top dogs in the marketing world think facts are what you like and remember? And that a thing called ‘big data’ is what’s going to persuade you which washing powder to buy?”

Then imagine the long, incredulous pause before they laugh you out of the supermarket. Followed by: “No, it’s the funny ones I like. Like the one where the man fights the bear for the salmon. That’s the one I remember.”

The sad truth is advertising and marketing has forgotten that information goes in through the heart. How do we make ads funny again?

Simple. Remember that Joe and Jo Punter don’t look out for the next ad, that engagement is king, that emotion is the real master of persuasion and that there’s no more memorable emotion that laughter. Do that and our industry will be laughing all the way to the check-out till.

tom drew

Tom Drew, executive creative director, Wunderman Thompson

Here’s a question from research groups that no longer requires answering: ‘If this brand were at a dinner party, would you want to sit next to it?’

Everyone would avoid the person who’s wanging on about how much charity work they do. They’d pull up a chair next to the person who has the other guests in fits.

Making people laugh, or even attempting to, is the simplest way of making somebody like you, Shirley. Maybe, as an industry, we need to start asking that simple question again and dealing with the brutal responses.

jordan dale

Jordan Dale, associate creative director, Above+Beyond

Create escapism through silliness. Silliness is a huge emotional barrier-breaker for brands and consumers. It makes our job more entertaining, the client more entertained, and most importantly the audience feels something they haven’t felt in a while (after the 16 months we’ve just had). And, because of the times we’re in, there’s a new audience energy in all things silly.

Look at TikTok – an entire success story based around people letting their guard down, escaping through the platform, dancing to songs they’d never dance to, or lip syncing to outrageous soundbites. Long story short: if it feels silly, and it lives in a silly space, it’s probably right.

damon collins

Damon Collins, founder, Joint

We’ve not seen many funny adverts for a while. Over and above the obvious “We’re in a fucking pandemic and people are fucking dying!” inappropriateness factor, there are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, research has shown that ads using emotion are more effective than the merely rational kind. Secondly, research has shown that people like purpose-led brands.

It’s no surprise, then, that chief marketers are desperately linking their brands to a cause and creating a load of emotionally-wrought content.

But there are two possible reasons humor could be a way forward. Firstly, it’s a common mistake to think advertising that elicits emotion (that makes people ‘feel something’) needs to be ‘emotional advertising’. Making people laugh is a powerful way of getting them to ‘feel something’. Secondly, being a purpose-led brand absolutely does not preclude the use of humor. Satire, for example, is a powerful way for brands to attack their enemy and make a powerful causal point along the way.

But despite the obvious “We’ve been in a fucking pandemic for months now and we really need to be fucking entertained” factor, we probably won’t be seeing much of it appearing any time soon. Because ballsy, brilliant, satirical content is nowhere near as easy to write as the earnest, pull-on-the-heartstrings kind. And it’s definitely not as easy for clients to buy.

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Aurelia Noel, global head of innovation and transformation, Dentsu X

Humor is a key element of human communication. The pandemic has created a systemic shift in the way brands communicate. In times of need, brands have stepped up to become selfless and openly purpose-driven, but as the world starts to heal, laughter may be the best medicine and a differentiator for brands who have mastered the art of self-deprecation.

Humor builds brand equity by reinforcing key messages in a light-hearted way. Humor done right should never be self-harming, but appropriately self-confident. Done wrong, it can send the wrong message. Be brave enough to understand where you can play and wait for the lols.

dan fryer

Dan Fryer and Gate Lambert, associate creative director, VaynerMedia

Festival juries may have fallen out of love with ‘funny’, but real people haven’t. And it’s vital for advertising not to lose touch with real people. Our work with Heinz and TikTok means we know the power of funny as hell – the number 1 podcast in the UK during the pandemic was Peter Crouch’s podcast: funny funny funny.

The world does want brands to be more responsible, but we should never forget that the millions of people who enjoy YouTube compilations like ‘funny Superbowl ads 2021’ are part of the world too.

So how do we make ads funny again? We remind ourselves that real people still love ‘funny’. So we should too.

tj cimfel

TJ Cimfel, chief creative officer, Razorfish Health

PSA for marketers: we all need to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Even in the world of healthcare, where things are often deadly serious. Pain and hardship are facts of life, sure. But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from funny. It means you should lean into it.

If your brand can help someone laugh, that’s a moment of respite you’ve given them. And that’s a positive association with your brand. At the end of the day, we owe it to our audiences to find a little levity, revel in absurdity, or even just tell a good fart joke.

rik moore

Rik Moore, head of insight, strategy and planning, The Kite Factory

You make ads funny again by following the fundamentals of comedy. The joke should be authentic to the person telling it, delivered from their worldview. Comedians are always taught to find their ‘voice’. Brands should do the same.

It should resonate with the audience in some way. You must take the audience on the journey with you, no matter how surreal the route. Think about how you tell your joke. The delivery matters as much as what you actually say. Be brave, and strive to be original to cut through. Above all else, always make sure your audience leave entertained.

mel arrow

Mel Arrow, head of strategy, BMB

There isn’t just one style of humor. For every Michael McIntyre there’s a Michaela Coel.

First, work out who your brand is. Then read the room. And by that I mean read the platform. Humor is vastly different on TikTok, Snapchat and TV.

Finally, and this is the kicker, say the thing you’re not supposed to. Over 1.2 million people have joked about death on Twitter. That might not be exactly right for your toothpaste brand, but what I’m saying is... surprise them.

Take the worst thing they think about you and spin it. People think you’re posh? Roll those Rs.

jow baratelli

Joe Baratelli, chief creative officer, RPA

As marketeers we have a job to do. Help clients’ businesses. We use creativity to get noticed. Creating emotions is our job. Whether it’s giving a rise to a chuckle or a tear. It must be true to the product or service or company ethos. Otherwise it’s disingenuous.

Groupthink lands on the side of the familiar. The hot trend. Right now, it’s all in service of ‘a cause’. It’s everywhere – news, social media. Corporations and their chief marketers are leaning into the downtrodden, the underrepresented.

Let’s push through the lingering shots of desaturated images and sad piano music. The people we’re messaging see through it. And we should too.

jeff schermer

Jeff Schermer and José Ramirez, associate creative directors, Gut Miami

The first step is deciding that it’s time to have fun with the work again. After that, it’s all about finding the main joke – the joke that all of the little baby jokes throughout the spot will be born from. We like to think about the stupid things that our friends would laugh at in our group chats. The goal at the beginning is just to crack ourselves up. A common saying at this point is, ‘That’s so dumb, I love it.’ Once you’ve got the joke, go all in on it. Oh, and hire a funny director.

If you’re an agency expert and would like to join in with future debates, just email me at sam.bradley[@]

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