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Even in tough times, consumers want ads that make them laugh – so why are there now so few?

Is advertising losing its sense of humour? Kantar UK's managing director for insights, Dom Boyd, has crunched the numbers and found funny ads are becoming harder to find. Understandable during the pandemic, you might think. Except, Boyd writes, people don’t want ad breaks filled with reminders that life is tough.

In one of the Cannes Lions Live interviews recently Rory Sutherland said advertising was not as funny as it used to be. It got me thinking about whether this was the case with the 200,000 ads we’ve measured around the world. I was alarmed to find that today you are twice as likely to see an ad without some form of light-hearted humour than you were 20 years ago. That’s a big red flashing warning light.

Humour is one of the most powerful creative weapons we have to create a strong emotional connection, so why are we using it less? Culture may change over time but the human brain is fundamentally the same. We are hardwired to respond to humour, and that provides a bigger opportunity for brands to stand out and build preference, the ulimate goal of branding.

There are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to pay attention to humour. After all we can’t bore our way into people’s hearts and minds.

First, humour doesn’t just help a brand stand out, it gets you in the gut – and that stuff sells. Emotions are the fastest way to deepen memory structures that guide how we make purchasing decisions through triggering distinctive memory associations. Peter Field’s IPA Effectiveness research tells us that being creatively awarded makes us between four and 11 times more effective for example. And Cannes Lions' analysis of award-winning ads before and after the turmoil of the 2008 financial crash also showed that humour and fun was still evident in 72% of the work.

That brings us to the second reason: in times of crisis laughter is one the best medicines. Yet Kantar’s own analysis of ads during this current pandemic shows that humour has been adopted by few brands. This is a missed opportunity. Comparing consumer responses to ads pre and during Covid-19 highlights very few differences in the way people have been responding to advertising during the crisis.

Ads that featured humour in a ‘business as usual’ stance were a welcome and entertaining reminder of more normal times. People don’t want ad breaks filled with reminders that life is tough. They need a little escapism; a reason to smile or laugh. They need entertaining.

Malteser’s is one brand that took a ‘lighter approach’ to referencing the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of its target audience by featuring a series of Zoom chats with a close-knit group of girlfriends. Yes the response to the humour in these ads was polarised, with women more likely to appreciate the jokes while men (and some women) finding it inappropriate. But the point is that they made a huge number of people smile.

Even consumers are telling us that they want you to make them laugh with only one in four people saying that ads should avoid humour. That’s 75% of your audience that still welcomes humour.

We know marketers want to be sensitive to the crisis we find ourselves living in, but brands need to find a way to bring back bold creativity to avoid become irrelevant wallpaper. Yes humour feels counterintuitive. But so does all great creativity. And this stuff is effectiveness kryptonite.

However, it doesn’t mean brands should rush out to the comedy store. Our analysis shows simply including ‘Kevin’ in Aldi’s Safer Shopping ad was powerful because people liked the serious subject of how to shop right now, but loved the laugh at the end. The trick is to know how to make people smile.

It also shows the creative 'problem children' are those that simply aim to evoke a feeling of togetherness by saying ‘we’re here with you’ such as BA, Birds Eye and Emirates. These were in the bottom 25% of all ads in the UK because they struggled to grab attention, but also failed to convey their brand uniqueness, so were neither distinctive or memorable.

There’s a simple lesson here. In trying to do the right thing, brands are ending up on the wrong side of the effectiveness line by thinking too hard and feeling too little.

Advertising is, and has always been, beautifully simple. Be bold and don’t be shy about bringing your unique brand to life by making people smile and laugh. From alien Smash martians to Russian-speaking meerkats, the most powerful creative has always been made of the stuff that doesn’t entirely make sense, and always will be.

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