No kidding: Why laughter is a marketer’s best friend (and worst enemy)

Nothing spreads faster than a good joke – it’s a conversation starter, dinner subject, friend maker, conflict resolver and day brightener. That’s why most of the commercials and advertisements we remember and share almost always feature a great sense of humor. Sadness and empathy impact each of us tremendously, but we’re less likely to share them with our friends. Sadness is personal – laughter is contagious.

Humor is one of the best ways to connect with people – it makes an organization look more human when it can produce a funny or clever ad. That humanity is an advantage, especially when compared against dry, flavorless marketing. By the same token, attempts at humor that fall flat are more irritating than endearing. So if your company is going to try to be funny, it had better not appear as though it’s trying to be funny.

Baby with a mustache - classic comedy.Baby with a mustache – classic comedy.

The right kind of funny can promote your brand
Generally speaking, it isn’t a good idea to give anyone advice on how to be funny. It’s less a skill than it is a mindset: You have to have a keen sense of timing, an eye for the absurd, a willingness to seize attention and a sharp wit. But in the business world, humor must be methodical – you can’t get away with cracking the kind of jokes you do with your close friends when the audience is, for example, the entire Internet. Consider these pointers when crafting a clever ad:

  • Get innocuous: According to Social Media Explorer, you should “pick your targets carefully.” If it has a specific demographic in the cross hairs, like a religious group or a gender, it probably won’t work. Make fun of yourself, or the weather, but not individuals. However…
  • Find the line: If you can toe the edge of what’s acceptable, your ad might just go viral. Consider the success of ads like K-Mart’s “Ship My Pants” – Inc. Magazine noted the company went out on a limb, but it worked.
  • Put your brand first: Even the funniest ads still feature the brand strongly. The content doesn’t even have to align with your product or service, but some aspect of your identity should be prominent.

Some organizations rely on funny characters or themes to get laughs. Think of Geico’s gecko or caveman, Budweiser’s “Waz up” commercials and the Aflac duck – they aren’t necessarily educational, but they can deliver a punch line and stick in customers’ heads.

The wrong kind of funny can be a disaster
Good, clean humor – even comedy on the edgier side – can send a good message to customers. But when a company crosses the line, the results can be disastrous. Inadvertently offensive or socially obtuse ads don’t make an organization look funny, connected and human. Just the opposite: They make that company seem out-of-touch, arrogant and even just plain rude.

The Geico caveman commercials worked well because they played with the idea of that offensive targeting, but instead of poking fun at an actual ethnicity or demographic, they elected a made-up character. On the other hand, facetious or belittling ads tend not to succeed. According to The Atlantic, Groupon learned that the hard way when millions of viewers responded to their Tibet-themed Super Bowl ad from 2011 with ire: The commercial moved a little too quickly from the troubles of Tibetan people to the fish curry you can find at a local restaurant.

Now that the Internet has made it easy for anyone with a smartphone to watch and comment on a video or image, it’s impossible to get away with offensive ads – and no, any publicity is not necessarily good publicity. At the same time, the funny ones are all the more likely to gain widespread recognition. Wield humor with responsibility and precision and its ability to generate positive responses can be yours.