Funny advertising is no trivial pursuit, so why the serious face?

Chris Toumazis, planner at Ogilvy & Mather and one of Campaign's 2017 Faces to Watch, shares his lessons from the ladder.

Leggy planner, 27, WLTM brand with GSOH, for fun times, no strings attached

It dawned on me recently that, since I started in advertising in 2012, I’ve not worked on a single funny ad.

I’ve been lucky to work on lots of great ads. Ads I’m proud of. Beautiful ads. Moving ads. Cool ads.

But no funny ones.

I realised this when I was re-watching the ads that got me interested in advertising in the first place, Apple’s "Get a Mac" from 2006. (You know, the "Hello I’m a Mac" / "And I’m a PC" ones.)

I loved how simple the idea was: personifying Macs and PCs to show the differences between the two. I loved that both characters were nuanced. I loved how, despite each of the more than 60 ads following the same template – with the same white background and the same kooky melody – every story felt fresh and new.

But what I loved most about them was that they were funny.

Each ad was a little sketch, with real gags. In "Counselor", the characters of PC and Mac visit a psychotherapist and PC feels inadequate. In "Surgery", PC solemnly offers Mac his peripherals before going under the knife for his Vista update. In "Accident", PC’s in a wheelchair because someone tripped over his power-cord.

The comedy in "Get a Mac" is crucial. It allows Apple to talk about how Macs are better than PCs without appearing smug.

Powerful but underused

It got me thinking about how powerful – and underused – comedy is as a tool for advertising.

Firstly, comedy is a great way to talk about difficult subjects.

In "Get a Mac", Apple was telling people who had bought PCs their whole lives that PCs were for losers. That’s quite punchy.

Without comedy, the ads would have been judgmental and isolating. People would have resented the message. The comedy makes it inclusive by making you feel like you’re in on the joke. It’s "PCs are for losers, but we all knew that already, didn’t we?"

One of my favourite Ogilvy campaigns last year, for Babylon, used comedy in a similar way.

The message was simple: asking the Internet for medical advice is a bad idea; ask the Babylon health app instead. The idea was to ridicule people’s tendencies towards hypochondria when they type their symptoms into Google. It’s a risky move to make fun of your audience.

But, because it’s a joke, the message doesn’t feel accusatory. The joke gives us permission to look at our behaviour objectively, which is a good start for behaviour change advertising.

Some of the best public information ads use comedy to talk about difficult subjects. Without the light-hearted ditty and funny vignettes, "Dumb Ways To Die" would have been a finger-pointy public message. Without the gangster conceit and tough-guy gags in Vinnie Jones’ "Hard & Fast", we wouldn’t all know to pump to the tune of Stayin’ Alive.

Secondly, comedy makes brands look cool and clever.

The second-most desired trait for people looking for a partner is a GSOH. People are attracted to funny people, and correlate humour with intelligence.

The same is true for brands.

Comedy revitalised Old Spice. It made the Dollar Shave Club famous. It helped make Spotify cool.

It’s especially handy for low-interest categories. I laughed out loud at Tide’s Super Bowl ads this year. Laundry detergent jokes are as good a way at creating a competitive advantage as any other.

And the results prove it.

Wins awards too

According to analytics company Ace Metrix, ads with a sense of humour are much more effective than ads without one, all else being equal. They’re more memorable, more enjoyable and more attention-grabbing. (Ask anyone who doesn’t work in advertising what their favourite ad is. I guarantee they’ll give you a funny one.)

And they win awards, too. In Ace Metrix’s analysis of over 25,000 ads, "hilarious" and "funny" were two of the top four defining characteristics of Cannes Lions-winning work.

Comedy works. Yet only 20% of ads are funny (or try to be). It goes up to 40% at the Super Bowl, when the whole world is watching.

So why don’t we use it more often?

I think it’s three things.

Firstly, comedy is hard. It’s great if you nail it, but you look foolish if you don’t. We’re all scared of telling a joke and no one laughing.

Secondly, comedy doesn’t always translate well. What goes down a storm in the UK may raise one elsewhere. This can be off-putting if you’re creating an international campaign.

Thirdly, in a culture where every brand wants a "purpose", some think of comedy as a trivial pursuit: that making people laugh is less clever than making them think or feel. This is nonsense, of course. At its best, comedy is smart, subtle and seductive. "Dumb Ways To Die" doesn’t make us think about train safety in spite of the light-hearted ditty and funny vignettes; it does so because of it.

When it comes to purpose, surely there are few nobler causes than making someone laugh. As Charles Dickens once wrote: "No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another."

Too right.

Comedy is a powerful and overlooked tool in advertising.

Let’s start using it more.

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