No Gag Reflex: Side Splitting Marketing

 Photo: Bob Collier/PA

Photo: Bob Collier/PA

Billy Connolly introducing Elton John at Live Aid. Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords going platinum. Madonna and #capegate. Rock and comedy make strange bedfellows and the same can be said of marketing and mirth. Gareth May finds out why rib tickling isn’t always tickety-boo for the public image, and the power of laughter if you get it right.

What’s the difference between God and Bono? God doesn’t walk round Dublin thinking he’s Bono. Yes. It’s a rare occasion when rock ‘n’ roll becomes rock ‘n’ roll around laughing. Some pop songs hit the mark (the recently revived ‘Three Lions’ comes to mind) and certain bands, like They Might Be Giants, burn off albums laced with satirical lyrics but generally, the relationship is more fling than familiar — and it’s not only music that struggles to maintain the marriage. Marketers corner and co-opt comedy too, with varied results.

As anyone who has ever laughed knows, laughter has currency. It differs from other conventional means of interaction and engagement; it brings people together and creates an atmosphere of goofiness or good will. Get ‘funny’ right and market reach, for a humorous ad for example, is limitless (think Peter Kay and the Warburton ads with exposure all over the shop). But get it wrong and the joke is on you. 

Walking the comedy tightrope

Dr. Peter McGraw, professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, says that his research regularly reveals the same outcome: that humor is a double-edged sword.

“Humor can be used effectively for marketing but there are things marketers need to be cautious about if they are going to make comedy a marketing tactic,” he says. “The challenge is that getting it right is not easy. If you want to make people feel sentimental, that’s easy. Make people scared? Easy too. But amuse people? That’s hard. There are more ways to fail at comedy than to succeed.” It’s a fine line, and one of high risk and high reward. 

Darren Moran, chief creative officer of Wonderful Agency, the in-house marketing and advertising agency for the company behind Fiji Water, Teleflora and Wonderful Pistachios, agrees that “humor is always risky.” Ask any stand-up comedian: You either kill or you bomb. There’s no middle ground.

The reward for a brand in taking a risk with comedy is in the deeper connection you can form with a customer when you touch them in a funny way.
— Darren Moran, Wonderful

“But the reward for a brand in taking a risk with comedy is in the deeper connection you can form with a customer when you touch them in a funny way. A humorous piece of branded content respects the consumer’s intelligence, it rewards them for their time, and it gives them something they can share to make others laugh, too. You do those three things and you’ve now got someone who will keep coming back to your brand.”

And there is a particular type of humor that works better than others, says McGraw. He explains that one of the rules of a successful comedy campaign is the notion of benign violation: the idea that humor arises from things that are wrong, but okay too. For example, when someone falls over comically, but you know that they haven’t seriously hurt themselves, you might laugh. But by contrast, you wouldn’t guffaw at a car crash. 

“Marketers are trying to find that sweet spot between the two failures: people being offended, the violation, and people being bored, the benign factor,” says McGraw, citing Paddy Power, the online betting company, as an example of a company that dances on that line of good and bad taste, and generally hits the right spot.

Courting controversy

With campaigns narrowly escaping censure and agencies proudly promoting their client as ‘no respecters of authority’, Paddy Power consistently play on the idea of ‘political correctness gone mad’, giving viewers licence, when they watch their ads, to laugh at things they might think, but not want to say in front of others (for example, before the 2016 Olympics, in response to the Russia doping scandal, they placed a medal amnesty box outside the Russian embassy).

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It’s a hard thing to do, but when you can hit that sweet spot over and over, it’s a currency few brands have. Lee Price, Head of PR at Paddy Power, admits the betting company’s strategy is “massively high-risk” — and not just because viewers might get offended, but also because the audience expect to experience that edginess, that ‘benign violation’,and they’re disappointed if they don’t.

“There’s always the risk of going ‘too far’ but you’re also only one shit punchline away from looking like a corporate sell-out,” he says. “With a reputation to uphold, any stunt we do that is unfunny, prompts accusations of losing our touch and originality.”

The first challenge for brands that wish to harness the power of humor as part of a marketing strategy is being prepared to be disliked, says Moran.

You’re inviting people into an exclusive group to which not everyone will feel welcome. But it’s better to only have 50% of your audience love you than to have 100% of your audience ignore you, which is what happens with most marketing.
— Darren Moran, Wonderful

“Humor is polarizing because it’s highly subjective. You take a stand when you make a joke. You’re inviting people into an exclusive group to which not everyone will feel welcome. But it’s better to only have 50% of your audience love you than to have 100% of your audience ignore you, which is what happens with most marketing.”

Relatable absurdity, Moran argues, can help minimize alienating too many people without sacrificing the humor that gets the brand noticed. “It’s when things get too real that people take jokes too seriously.” 

As a company, Wonderful push that line, as when they clothed famous nude works of art – some of them religious paintings – to make the point ‘Sometimes Naked is Better’ for their Wonderful No Shells Pistachios product. 

“We prepared responses for the various things we thought people might complain about,” says Moran, “but millions of video views later and the response to the work has been overwhelmingly positive. Comedy is not dead after all.”

Light touch

Not all humorous marketing has to be edgy though. As the comic Jason Manford recently posted on Twitter in response to critics calling his show comfortably middle of the road: “Fair play to the edgy comics but you can’t have the edge without the middle”. Quite.

Take the example of Maltesers. The British confectionary brand recently announced that they’re revisiting the success of their 2016 disability-focused campaign with more light-hearted skits on life’s awkward — and often innuendo-fuelled — moments. They’re funny and a little bit ‘cringe’, but they’re not violating anyone’s sensibilities.

Likewise, Groupon, the exclusive deals company, have built their success on playfulness. Whilst offering spa treatments and shopping experiences, the site also garnered popularity for promoting a day of unicorn riding. Twee, perhaps, but it played to their fun-loving audience. And as Silvija Martincevic, CMO of Groupon International, says, humor can really only work if a company has “a deeper understanding” of their customers, as well as “the societal context” that brand content will be consumed.

“Humor is personal, so in order to strike the right balance you have to ensure that the tone is correct for your brand,” she says. “Choosing when to use humor and when not to is crucial too. We are incredibly lucky that humor is in the Groupon DNA. Our brand is perceived as fun and quirky and this gives us a lot of scope to play.”

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The last laugh

In the 21stcentury shareable content is the Holy Grail and new media is the marketing jester’s modern court. From Charmin selling toilet rolls with self-referential wit (saying the things no-one else is saying once again) or Dollar Shave Club going viral with 25 million views on YouTube, shooting from the hip on shareable content can really hit the funny bone.

“Humor is based on surprise,” says Moran. “In a traditional piece of content, like a commercial, the laugh comes from not seeing the punchline ahead of time. In some ways, it’s even easier to surprise people in non-traditional channels like in a digital post, educational video, a point-of-sale piece or a PR activation. Because people aren’t prepared for something funny to happen. They have certain expectations for what that channel is designed to do.”

Honestly, we could launch a campaign saving puppies and someone on the internet would be pissed off. So we harness the backlash, channel it, and try to ride it out with smart-arse replies.
— Lee Price, Paddy Power

But social media comes with its own risks. You’re just as likely to have a laugh as be told to f-off. “Honestly, we could launch a campaign saving puppies and someone on the internet would be pissed off,” says Price. “So we harness the backlash, channel it, and try to ride it out with smart-arse replies. I hope we’d be funny enough to have the majority backing us. That hasn’t always been the case, of course, but we hope to get it right most of the time.”

Social media backlash or not, comedy and marketing has a shelf life. Like the super group, from Cream to Slash’s Snakepit, the walls will start to close in eventually, often after the best hit, and like any relationship, especially one with such high stakes, we have to accept it won’t last forever.

Last year, after Paddy Power switched marketing agencies, Lucky Generals founder Danny Brooke-Taylor told reporters: “We’ve enjoyed a hell of a ride with Paddy. Romping home some winners whilst clinging on for dear life.” What is it they say? It’s all about the ride? But you’ve also got to know when to get off.


Gareth May

Gareth May is a freelance journalist. He specializes in food and drink, sex and relationships, and gaming and tech.

He's covered everything from hijab porn and the rise of brosecco, to the representation of mental health in video games.

Read more from Gareth or follow him on Twitter


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