Creativity after coronavirus: is it time for the return of funny ha ha?

Strange times and constrained circumstances have inevitably changed the tone and look of ads in the past couple of months into a mass of empathetic and sentimental outpourings. However, as we emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, is it time, or indeed appropriate, to bring back the belly laughs?

Conflict can spawn creativity. The Great War brought a golden age of music hall for the Home Front, alongside the trench humour that helped keep some of those on the frontline going; the Second World War inspired a boom in art, poetry, music, film, literature, the NHS (eventually) and thousands of business patents. It also sparked plenty of "funny" as people sought to "keep smiling through".

In 1939, Lieutenant Ricketts wrote that "Hitler has only got one ball"; the comedian Tommy Handley (pictured, top) kept radio audiences entertained throughout the war on the BBC’s It’s That Man Again, while popular slogans such as "Coughs and sneezes spread diseases", illustrated by HM Bateman with lighthearted cartoons, were also coined. This particular example from the Ministry of Health is as true today as it was back then, and can be seen as a precursor to the NHS’s more recent "Catch it. Bin it. Kill it" mantra.

There hasn’t been much funny to see during the war on Covid-19 – socially, economically, in advertising or in popular culture, as the country comes to terms with the greatest natural loss of life since the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed the First World War.

But with lockdown easing and society beginning to come to terms with how life has changed, following an extended period when agencies proved that they were capable of working from home, the days of stripped-back, austere and functional ads that have tried to display practicality, humanity and utility might be coming to an end in favour of something else.

While these Covid-era ads were steps into the unknown, it was inevitable that the limitations on their creation and production, as well as matters of taste and propriety, meant that many would end up looking the same. We’ve all become familiar with empathetic ads featuring scenes of empty streets, and self-isolators stood in their windows applauding key workers, accompanied by a bland but supportive corporate message. And while they may have ended up looking the same, tonally they may have got it right; according to System1 research, ads that used emotion and launched during the pandemic were more effective than those that launched before it.

Nonetheless many people won’t miss them. Indeed, some have sniped at their formulaic look. Andy Nairn, a founder of Lucky Generals, points out: "For the first time in advertising history, we’ve all been working on the same brief. And, not surprisingly, we’ve then all been making the same ads. And then (with delicious irony), we’ve all been making the same catty remarks about how similar they all are.

"In the short term, the rather conventional response is, arguably, forgivable: just as we don’t berate funeral orators (and apologies for a metaphor which has been all too real recently) for using familiar devices, I think we can cut brands a little slack right now, if they’ve followed well-worn paths. But now that we’re slowly moving into a ‘new normal’ phase, there’s no excuse for vanilla. In fact, with recession looming, it’s more important than ever to speak and act distinctively."

Research from Lucky Generals (conducted in May 2020), suggested that 90% of Britons agreed that "at the moment, it’s important to find joy in the small things" and that the same amount feel that "keeping a sense of humour is important in times like these".  In fact, 85% believed that "British people often use humour to get through a crisis". 

Some have even tried to use this approach during lockdown. Nicky Bullard, chairwoman of MRM McCann, says: "Of course, there is absolutely nothing funny about Covid-19. But there is something funny about joggers who’ve never jogged before. Or kids wanting a poo while you are on a conference call. Or the fumbling to turn off your camera, two minutes after you’ve already said goodbye. There may be a bit of a lid on it for now. And quite rightly. But as soon as funny creatives see a crack in the curtains, they are going to pull them wide open and let the sunshine in."

During the height of the crisis, ad colleges responded to the understandable prevailing sense of gloom and anxiety among students by issuing briefs that focused on humour and entertainment to engender a feeling of positivity, rather than the real briefs that were actually doing the rounds. 

Marc Lewis, dean of School of Communication Arts in Brixton, explains: "The past few months have been about two extremes: some people are thriving and some are struggling terribly. People whom I speak to can go through a spectrum of emotions in a day. In an hour." 

"Now that we’re slowly moving into a ‘new normal’ phase, there’s no excuse for vanilla"
— Andy Nairn, Lucky Generals

And from such diametrically opposed emotions, he thinks new forms of creativity could be inspired. "At the risk of sounding predatory or opportunistic (fuck it, I think it is important to be both, if we are to do our jobs as creatives and as leaders), this is such an exciting time to be a creative leader. This is our moment to bring meaning to people’s lives, to help them find themselves, to create connections, to promise hope, to provide a sense of release and relief. I am so excited to be able to sit back and soak up all the creativity that came from coronavirus – and commercial creativity is a huge part of that."

But will we see "funny" – an emotion that has been largely absent (both in pre- and peri-Covid times)? After all System1 identifies humour as valid as an emotional prompt as empathy. Ben Middleton, founder and chief creative officer at Creature, says that after the brutality of Covid-19 begins to subside, the ad industry’s attention is likely to revert to sentimental type but hopefully only briefly. 

"Post-lockdown is inevitably going to be a feelings-tsunami of hyper-sentimental films, featuring nervously hugging neighbourhood choirs, banging on about community, so humour, laughter and the ‘lolz’ are going to be potent tools for making our client partners’ brands stand out from the crowd," he argues. 

However after taking stock and properly preparing for life returning to his own version of "normal", he adds: "Personally, I’m looking for the light at the end of the tunnel that’s smirk-shaped. It might sound counterintuitive, and even a bit heartless to be pining for the funnies whilst our death-rate outstrips most of the developed world but, as we’re now meant to be ‘on the downslope’, I can’t be the only one feeling perversely positive. One of the joys of our job is interrogating a brand or product to find its truth, and then presenting that insight to customers in a fresh and compelling way, that’s going to persuade them to do something different. And telling a joke is a bloody good way to start those conversations."

Others are not so sure. Laughter might be the best medicine – ha ha – but it comes with inherent risks, given that so much of British humour traditionally involves someone taking the role of the punchline. At this point it’s mandatory to mention Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury’s early-1990s Tango ads.

Tony Cullingham, Watford course leader at West Herts College, agrees that we all could do with some humour but thinks that societal expectations of advertising have changed. "Boy, do we need a laugh right now. Something to cheer us up," he says. "I’d  love to see a comedy renaissance in advertising. I just can’t see it happening post Covid-19. The idea of funny ads died years ago when the juggernaut of political correctness shunted comedy into the ditch.

"The idea of funny ads died when the juggernaut of political correctness shunted comedy into the ditch"
— Tony Cullingham, West Herts College

"Comedy is based on human frailty-ignorance, idiocy and clumsiness traits, which are perceived as being insensitive and unkind. The women pissing themselves over the Harvey Nichols sales was funny ["Wet with excitement", DDB UK, 2012]. It was one of the most-awarded campaigns of the year. It was also the most complained-about ad of the year. Apparently, it was offensive to incontinence sufferers. Personally, I pissed myself laughing."

Quite whether many marketers will be brave enough to sign off ads that make some people piss themselves with laughter and others work themselves up to a tizzy in outrage is up for question. 

Cullingham thinks not many will risk it: "Once we get back to our plastic-bubble desks, agency and marketing staff will be fighting hard to keep their jobs. They won’t want to rock the boat with crazy, funny, wacky ideas. It will all be earnest, soul-searching, bleeding-heart stuff, driven by data and fear."

That’s not to say that "funny" has completely disappeared from UK advertising. Cullingham identifies 4Creative, Mother, Wieden & Kennedy and Droga5 London as the potential humour flag-bearers. 

But will advertising embrace comedy post-Covid-19? "No. But occasionally it might get a social distancing hug from time to time," he opines.

The occasional social-distanced humour of Cullingham or "funny", bathed in all its sunlight, as described by Bullard? The creative jury is out. But much like the early socially distanced brand logos, maudlin Covid-19 advertising has run its course, and it’s time for something new. Humour is as good a choice of emotion to replace it as any other.

On this one, I’m with Hamlet… the cigar

David Bain, co-founder, BMB

Hamlet, sad and hesitant prince of Denmark, was never a chap to play things for laughs – hardly surprising, given the context: his mum was shagging his uncle, who shafted his dad, who came back (tapping his wristwatch) demanding blue bloody murder. That’s not funny, it is just plain rotten. Against this dismal backdrop, Hamlet believed in playing things straight. His advice, given to the actors in Hamlet’s play within a play, seems to haunt our industry during lockdown. Hamlet wanted no flights of fancy in his drama and demanded his players "hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature", that they "oerstop not the modesty of nature" and show the world an accurate image of itself. Drama is a mirror in which we can see our lives. 

Hamlet the (over)thinker has clearly written the brief for most current ads. Mirror marketing now dominates. Sitting in lockdown, watching telly, feeling a bit plinky-plonky melancholic, we are exposed to lots of ads about people sitting in lockdown, looking a bit plinky-plonky melancholic. The black mirror perfectly reflects us back to ourselves in grainy portrait mode. Each ad has the same strategy-gushing, corporate empathy; each has the same production limitations (shoot it on a phone); and so each looks and sounds the same. 

But maybe there are creative and strategic aspirations higher than the mindlessly mimetic. Perhaps, now more than ever, people need a little bit more from their ad breaks, something else from their brands – something bolder and much humbler. Brands are not "with us", they are for us. They provide our little treats, our everyday inessentials. They make up the quotidian stuff that matters far less than staying healthy and staying sane. Lockdown reminds us that the job of brands is pleasure not purpose, merriment not mission. So maybe it is time brands got back in their DHL-delivered box,  made our mood lighter and dared to make us laugh.

I choose to side with Hamlet, the endlessly entertaining, mild cigar, rather than Hamlet the Dane, the endlessly earnest overthinker. We don’t need a branded mirror; we know what our lives look like. We don’t need your corporate empathy – you are not an actor in our drama.  We don’t need plaintive pianos, heartfelt CEO letters or pseudo-inspiring hashtaggery. What we need from brands is entertainment, distraction and good humour. It won’t be easy, given the lack of production tools right now, but if Ryan Reynolds can make ads on PowerPoint that make mobile tariffs funny and an unknown developer can give me "toco laser eyes" on Instagram, then our brightest and bravest should be able to raise a smirk in a UK ad break before the summer’s out.  So, I say to Hamlet, give me a lamp, sweet prince, to light up the current darkness. And you can keep your mirror and its image of my knackered, strung-out face.

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