*What’s a frog’s favorite drink?

Croaka Cola.*



Not funny.

If that was the tagline for an ad – if that was used in any kind of marketing campaign whatsoever, that campaign would fail miserably and make the company look like fools.

We all know that it’s not funny. But why? This article will explore what makes something funny versus unfunny. And it will do this from a marketing perspective, sensitive to what is versus is not appropriate for advertising messages.

Is Humour just Silly?

Humour is one of the few marketing techniques that can be truly atomic if pulled off well. Statistics tell us that 80% of college kids remember humorous ads (Source: Adweek). But we don’t need statistics (or dopiminergic neuroscience or whatnot) to tell us that humour has a way of making us pay attention and remember and share ads when ususally we just don’t give a damn. Like, from the top of your head, think of the proportion of campaigns that went viral because they were funny. Old Spice, Dumb Ways to Die, … Most of them.


How be Laughed with and not Laughed at

This is a very summarised version of a topic that is covered in detail on sites like Uncyclopedia (Source):

  • Meaning > Nonsense: one of the key progressions from primary school to high school humour is making jokes that reveal the humour in some underlying meaning. Absurdist humour can be effective e.g. Old Spice, but even this has an underlying meaning which ridicules overinflated brand promises.
  • Being silly about serious things or serious and silly things. E.g. the latter: a commercial for cat food that depicts a guy trying to mend his relationship with his cat by giving it different cat food up to gourmet cuisine before finally pleasing it with the brand’s cat food.
  • Decent into absurdity: start off serious then make it get more and more absurd. E.g. a commercial taglined ‘Coke makes you cooler’ which starts off with it making a guy refreshed and ‘chill’ and decends into turning him into some sunglasses-wearing ice-man.
  • Self-reference: appeals to esp. young people with the cynical ‘Ive seen this before’ postmodern mindset. When an ad knows it’s an ad or some variation on this.
  • Self-deprecation: appeals to similar market, in fact most hard-to-market-to brand cynics. Adds credibility (willingness to admit faults) and humanises the brand.
  • Irony: similar appeal to the last two. But can be used to satirise competitors. The message is: ‘We know you’re cynical of the whole thing, but we’re not like those guys’.
  • Imitation: of a general thing – ok. Can be effective. But imitation of a competitor (comparative advertising) is basically a marketing war crime (unofficially) and can beget a nasty brand war.
  • Puns: can work, but not explosively. Also, punsters tread a delicate line between actual humour and cringe. Many people are all too eager to mock a lame pun, so use carefully. This is one of the main problems with horrible the ‘Croaka Cola’ example. It’s lame because it’s predictable, meaningless and not a very smart pun. Some puns get by on being smart – working perfectly across multiple syllables. This does none of that.
  • Shock value: can grab attention like no other (some would say ‘cheaply’), but has large potential to offend the audience. E.g. the Ghost Car German beverage commercial (watch if you don’t have a weak heart, nervous temperment or any other condition whatsoever) may reach it’s young male target market, but at the cost of scaring the bejeezus out of thousands of grandmas.


Marketing Humour Tips

Be Tactful

Always always no matter what be tactful in marketing. Think: ‘how would the class tattletail at high school respond to this?’. Because the adage: ‘All publicity is good publicity’ is actually downright incorrect. (I’de say it’s more often used by non-marketers and -PR managers.) Bad publicity is bad publicity like for instance, the BP oil spill (2010) which no one wonders if it was a marketing campaign. The main effect of all BP’s 2010 publicity was: sell BP shares; boycott BP.

So joke types to (rather obviously) avoid:

  • Obscenities
  • Gross humour, toilet jokes, etc.
  • Political, religious, racial, gender, etc. humour

Whatever you do don’t be Unfunny or Uncool

Humour is one of those powerful blowgun-like weapons that can help you or harm you. If you use humour at all, make sure you pull it off well. A mildly funny joke is probably worse than no joke.

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