The Importance of Humour in Marketing

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by James Cowan of Canadian Business as a proxy for Dennis Hurley after his Yellow Paper on Humour in Marketing was published. James’s thesis was that humour has always played an important role in marketing and advertising in particular, but in the social media marketing space, it is essential.

I had a number of thoughts, some of which made it into James’s final piece “Viral ads that smell as good as this guy“, inspired in part by this :30 from Old Spice.

Some other thoughts:

I agree, to an extent. Social media has meant there is a lot of content out there. Some good, some bad but there is a lot of stuff fighting for your attention. In a world where your actions, as a consumer of content, can be broadcast to (potentially) tens of thousands of people with just a few clicks of a mouse, marketers need to stand out and need to encourage interaction with their content…especially on Facebook (likes, comments) and Twitter (replies, retweets). How you break through is up to you. You don’t need to be news worthy, side splittingly funny or emotionally charged every time, you just need to be huh-worthy.

Humour is a powerful emotion to aspire to but the very notion of “humour” is very difficult to define and very easy to get wrong. For every Old Spice there are likely 10 videos which started off as funny but which went down like a lead balloon.

As I said:

“You have to be really careful with humour. There are way more pitfalls than with some other approaches, you need to find a relevant voice for the brand.”

There are other emotions to tap into than just humour – marketing is about making that connection and choosing the right emotion to play of off is just as important as the voice of the brand. Sports brands do a great job of uplifting, inspirational advertising while non-profits have been successfully tugging on your heart strings for years.

More important than being humourous is finding the right voice for the brand. Thirty second spots can do a lot but they can really only convey one or two main messages, giving consumers a fleeting look at the brand and what it stands for. Online and with social media, we can help brands find their true voice and let them go. The right voice is one which is right for the brand’s DNA and heritage, is right for the category and right for the consumer and right for the general population. If its right for the brand and the business objectives, target marketing and category, and if your traditional advertising is humourous, online and social media is a fantastic place to extend that story – to make it richer, more compelling and, dare I say it, more engaging. Take PlayStation’s “VP of everything”, Kevin Butler. This fictional character lives in his :30 spots but PlayStation has extended his life online through a YouTube channel (4k subscribers; 40k channel views) and Twitter feed.

The YouTube houses the :30 spots as well as a long-form extension (no doubt as an experiment) but the Twitter feed really gives the character legs through very smart, very funny copywriting. It’s no suprise that The Kevin Butler has more than 15k followers on Twitter and has some of his tweets retweeted (via the Twitter retweet mechanism) more than 100 times each. He also have more than 4,000 (unofficial) fans on Facebook who have captured his career progression.

Last week he was campaigning for a new title:

Ok @SF_49ers. Last chance to bring me on as VP of Not Screwing Up Another Draft. I don’t ask for much. Just total control.

Clearly Kevin Butler works for PlayStation (and the agency which created him, Deustche LA) as PS3 purchase intent has nearly doubled since the spot hit. I know I almost have – I’m a big fan (even though Deustche LA is a competitor to DDB). However, not all brands and not all agencies have the creative firepower to keep it up in such a sustained way.

It is easy to be “creative”; it is hard to be strategically creative. It is easy to be the court jester; it is hard to be strategically funny. If you play at being the court jester, you need to have something behind the humour in order to be effective. It’s hard to be humourous enough to consistently break through over sustained period of time so as a brand there must be substance behind the humour rather than just humour for humour’s sake.

7 Responses to The Importance of Humour in Marketing

  1. David H says:

    I think it’s important to point out that “humour” isn’t an emotion – it’s simply a method of prompting the audience to experience a feeling of “happiness”, which IS an emotion.

    Why is the difference important? Well, if the strategic goal is to cause people to feel happy, the range of creative options is vast. If the goal is to make them laugh, then you have only one approach – be funny or die.

    I get the feeling these days that many creative teams start with the goal of creating a communication that will make people laugh. In doing so, they may well “miss” a large proportion of the target audience, they are being predictable (cardinal sin) … and they are most certainly taking the very real risk of producing an embarrassing “dud”.

    It’s a bit like a non-profit relief agency setting out to make the audience cry … when what they really want to do is prompt emotions like sadness and sympathy. You don’t always need to produce a tear-jerker to accomplish that.


  2. craigruark says:

    While humor is a great attention getter when done correctly, it also shortens the shelf life of your spot. A humorous commercial may tickle the funny bone the first three to four times it is viewed but starts to grate on you after that. The number one problem agencies make with a humorous commercial is too high a frequency rate (sometimes running the commercial in the same break with one or two spots in between), and leaving it in rotation too long.

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  4. […] @edlee has an interesting blog post on when to use humor in marketing [link to post] links to Old Spice and Play Station […]

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  7. […] can't hate you if you make them laugh!! RT @thePRguycom The Importance of Humour in Marketing [link to post] […]

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