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After decades of consistent decline, humor in advertising is roaring back in 2024

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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

January 8, 2024 | 10 min read

With the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, the introduction of the new humor category at Cannes Lions and a growing sense of purpose fatigue, demand for humor in advertising is soaring.

Laughing faces collages

Brands are increasingly putting humor at the heart of their creative strategies

In November, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity announced that it would add a new humor category to its 2024 awards. “Work entered into this category should use wit and satire to provide amusement and create memorable, laughter-inducing connections with audiences,” reads a statement on the festival’s website.

The news came after Andrew Robertson, chief executive officer at Omnicom-owned creative agency BBDO Worldwide, gave a keynote speech at Cannes in 2023 urging marketers to return to humor. “If brands are truly looking to make the world a better place,” the executive said, “we could do a lot worse than make people laugh.”

It’s a sentiment that appears to be gaining increasing buy-in across the industry. After solemn, pandemic-era ads struck emotional chords and led with purpose-focused messaging, audiences are hungry for levity and lightheartedness.

And brands are responding accordingly. Google’s heartstring-tugging 2020 Super Bowl ad, which told the tale of how Google Assistant helped a man suffering from dementia remember his late wife stands in stark contrast to the brand’s 2023 Super Bowl spot, which enlisted popstar Doja Cat and comedian Amy Schumer to showcase Google’s Magic Eraser tool, used to remove pooping dogs and unwanted photo-bombers from image backgrounds.

Meanwhile, at Cannes Lions 2023, 52% of Film category winners were intentionally funny – up a staggering 43% from 2022. The category’s Grand Prix was awarded to Apple’s ‘RIP, Leon,’ a cheeky spot about pet sitting gone awry.

Mapping the decline – and subsequent rise – of humor in ads

The resurgence of humor in advertising is especially notable considering that the industry has for many years been witnessing its decline. Research from Kantar finds that humor in advertising has dropped fairly consistently since around 2002, with major dips seen around the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in 2022, just 1 in every 10 Cannes Lions Grand Prix and Gold winners employed humor.

BBDO’s Robertson says he understands brands’ hesitance to rely on comedy for fear of being perceived as tone-deaf during moments of economic, political, or social tension. “People are conscious of the environment,” he says. “They look around, and there are lots of terrible things going on. And it seems logical that you shouldn’t have fun or make fun of things at a time like that.”

Other factors contributing to the demise of humor in ads include the rise of purpose-focused advertising and the decline of linear TV’s dominance. As the market witnesses increasing fragmentation across channels and screens, “it’s harder to make humor work across a multiplatform campaign,” says Jess Messenger, global head of communications at System1, an advertising-focused market research group.

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Other industry leaders take a more pessimistic view of what catalyzed humor’s decline. “Culture didn’t change – advertising did. We discovered that it’s not only more powerful to say that a brand is saving the world or ending racism or whatever, but it’s also easier to do than to come up with a really great joke or an amazingly funny story,” says Eric Kallman, a Wieden+Kennedy and TBWA alum and the founder and chief creative officer of independent agency Erich and Kallman. “And, most importantly, awards shows love it. So, all the effort from agencies shifted to purpose-driven stuff.”

Kallman goes so far as to suggest that brands themselves rarely advocate for purpose-driven messaging and that most of the effort on this front is led by awards-hungry agencies. And as purpose-driven advertising has continued to flourish, Kallman contends that humor-focused ads, meanwhile, have lost their cachet, becoming “consistently worse and less funny.”

He’s hopeful about the return to funny advertising. “Humor is what makes people actually remember and like a brand,” he says.

And on this final point, Kallman is right. Data largely suggests that humor works. It translates to greater effectiveness in advertising – even in tense sociopolitical climates and amid growing channel fragmentation.

90% of consumers say they’re more likely to remember a funny ad and 72% would select a humorous brand over the competition, according to research from Oracle. Similar findings have been produced by Kantar and System1.

Even when addressing serious subject matter or a purpose-focused message, Robertson contests that brands should consider the power of humor. “You can have a very noble purpose and still talk about it in an amusing and entertaining way. One of the things you realize about humor is how effective it is at breaking down barriers, at creating some kind of connection with people that [enables] you to move your message across that open channel,” he says.

He gives the example of a Maltesers campaign that ran in the UK in 2017, which featured people with a range of disabilities using the candy as a prop to tell hilarious stories. “[Disabilities] are a pretty serious subject – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. That doesn’t mean it can’t make you feel good.”

In another example, Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce promoted Pfizer’s Covid and flu vaccines in a playful ad last fall titled ‘Two Things At Once.’ The NFL star showed off his multitasking skills, mowing the lawn while grilling and bench-lifting a reporter while giving an interview.

Humor expands into new territories

One brand that’s found recent success with humor is enterprise cloud software company Workday. The brand’s ‘Rock Star’ campaign – which picked up the Chair’s Award at The Drum Awards for B2B 2023 and was recognized by USA Today’s AdMeter as one of the top Super Bowl ads of 2023 – saw real-life rockers, including Ozzy Osbourne, Joan Jett, Billy Idol and others, poke fun at “corporate types” for calling each other “rock stars.”

“We were able to tap into the cultural zeitgeist around rock stars and apply it to an office setting,” says Emma Chalwin, the brand’s chief marketing officer.

To ensure the ad would prove effective, Chalwin says the brand worked with analytics firm Triangulum Insights on an exposure study to test whether the ‘rock star’ concept resonated with audiences. “Calling coworkers ‘rock stars’ is something everyone can relate to, and we tested that extensively,” she says. “We wanted the creative to tell a story true to Workday’s voice and our core values.”

The ad, which aired just months after Workday’s equally cheeky Peyton Manning-fronted campaign that duplicated the ex-NFLer by the dozen, is a testament to the expanding influence of playful messaging. No longer is comedy relegated to the realm of consumer-focused messages – today, B2B is increasingly embracing humor in its marketing strategies.

B2B’s shift toward humor-driven advertising is due, in part, to an expansion of influence on key buyers, according to Jim Habig, vice-president of marketing at LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. “In B2B, we’ve always thought of the buying group as a pretty tight-knit, small group of people who hold the fortunes of a company in their hands,” he says. But today, that’s changing. He explains: “You get more empowered end-users who are more vocal at their companies for the products and the platforms they want to use. Now, there’s a whole raft of influencers sitting outside the core buying group. So you see more B2B marketing targeting a broader cohort of people. That’s really the driving force behind more of this big tent-style advertising in the B2B space.”

It’s this shift that has informed much of LinkedIn’s own marketing of late. In November, the brand teamed up with Ryan Reynolds’ production company Maximum Effort to produce a playful campaign that taps into a common experience of millennials and gen Zers: realizing your parents have no clue what you do for a living. “[My son] says he sells clouds,” an older woman says in one of the spots.

“We wanted to show B2B marketers, ‘Hey, we get you. We know that the language you use is sort of arcane and closed off. We know that the challenges you face are sort of difficult and unique to you. And you can come to be with more people that understand those idiosyncratic needs on LinkedIn,’” Habig explains. He says that Maximum Effort was an ideal partner because humor “is one of their fortes.”

The need to challenge assumptions

Of course, industry leaders acknowledge that humor may not always be the right fit for a message.

But Robertson, for his part, hopes that marketers will at least engage in more thoughtful consideration. “It’s easy to convince yourself,” he says, that humor doesn’t fit with your brand’s message or identity. “But it’s a good idea to challenge that assumption. Because oftentimes we’re making assumptions – without even realizing it – about how a brand can and should behave.”

He goes on: “There may well be brands for whom it really doesn’t make sense, but the assumption that there are categories and brands and times when you shouldn’t, under any circumstances, use humor is something we should be challenging. There’s too much good data about how well humor helps out for it not to be considered. It makes people feel better, which makes the advertising work harder.”

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