Groucho Marx glasses, nose, and mustache

The Use of Humor in Advertising

Humor may not be as vital to our survival as oxygen, water or chocolate hazelnut spread but without at least a dab of it in our daily dealings, we sure do wither. Humor is, after all, so much more than flat out comedy. It’s the mutual recognition of shared experiences, upon which good relationships of all kinds are built. When we laugh, we are signaling that we understand, and more importantly, as a client, customer or audience member, that we feel understood.

This is of course why it’s much easier to be funny around people we know … they “get” us, we have shared references. But when we move outside our comfort zones, where we are no longer just talking, but selling, we have to think through how we will use humor, because we recognize that there are pitfalls. We want the good reaction, the “ha-ha wasn’t that Super Bowl ad with the weiner dogs wearing the hot dog buns cute” funny, not the other, “er, that puppy monkey baby was Jar Jar Binks-level annoying” funny. (Or, maybe the intent was to mesmerize the Millennials — after all, the puppy monkey baby was drawing more clicks than any other Super Bowl ad.) So how do we assess risk, use humor to our advantage in creating larger conversations with an audience through advertising?

Super Bowl 2016 TV Spots for Heinz (left) and Mountain Dew

At our agency, the questions we ask ourselves when employing humor are about our audience, their frames of reference, what we’re ultimately trying to get across and how we will measure success. There are some clients and causes where a humorous approach would be distracting or even disrespectful; others where some levity and quirk can help break through the clutter and make the audience more receptive to the message. (I personally like the Jublia foot fungus ads, but foot fungus is fair game for some fun; child abuse or home foreclosure prevention, not so much.)

In our campaign for Pennsylvania’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, CHIP, we used a little gentle humor to promote the idea of children’s health insurance. We developed an overall theme, “Health coverage for uninsured kids is well within reach,” and our TV spot extended the metaphor to show children of all ages reaching for things in their daily lives. Our audience — parents of young children — responded to the lighthearted scenes: a pre-schooler trying mightily to reach her glass of juice; a teen boy straining to do a pullup; a half-asleep tween girl fumbling for her smartphone.

:30 TV Spot for CHIP

For our recent radio campaign for Lycoming County Resource Management Services, we decided to have some fun promoting a new concept for northern PA counties: single-stream recycling. One spot features two regularly recycled items, a Beer Bottle and Tomato Paste Can. These characters encounter a surprising new addition to the recycling bin — Juice Box, who explains that cartons and other materials can now be recycled together.

:60 Radio Spot for Lycoming County Resource Management Services

When used effectively, humor boosts our comfort level to make us more open to new ideas, which is really what good communication should be about.

By Karen Gray Associate Creative Director