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There’s a saying that dissecting a joke is much like dissecting a frog: nobody laughs and the frog dies. But dissect we must, for humour is now recognised as an essential component of the creative’s toolbox, so it’s a tool that needs probing.

And speaking of double entendre, one of the great dissectors of humour was Sigmund Freud, who posited the relief theory of laughter – that jokes let out forbidden thoughts and feelings society dictates we suppress. So, when a brand delivers a laugh, it’s bestowing a gift, a chance for a bit of vicarious mischief or silliness. After all, isn’t it sometimes an effort to suppress the desire to paint ourselves orange and run around in our pants slapping people?

In the 1920s, advertising pioneer Claude C. Hopkins warned against the use of 'frivolity' saying it lessened respect for a product; “People do not buy from clowns.”

Tango – Slap

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So, comedy can not only connect us to our inner fruit loop, it also connects us to a brand. As director Hank Perlman says, “Comedy makes people feel something and connects with them emotionally.” Those positive emotions can also alter perceptions of a brand. Comedy is cool – court jesters, satirists, surrealists are all slightly anarchic outsiders after all –  so humour can lend cachet to dull products.   

Insurance giant GEICO wouldn’t be the most memorable finance brand for its name alone (Government Employees Insurance Company, catchy) had The Martin Agency not introduced a cheeky gecko in 1999 as the company mascot. The agency’s gone on to create an impressive body of comic ads, with the ‘So easy a caveman could do it’ series of 2004 actually spawning a spin-off sitcom, Cavemen, that aired on ABC in 2007.

There's been such a trend towards emotionally-driven and purpose-driven advertising it's almost like brands have forgotten how to do funny.

GEICO – Insult

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And who would have thought that male incontinence could be the subject of such mirth. AMV’s TENA Men ads have given wee leakage the wow factor.  

But, comedy hasn’t always been seen as the advertiser’s friend. Brands used to aim for gravitas and respectability. In the 1920s, advertising pioneer Claude C. Hopkins warned against the use of 'frivolity' saying it lessened respect for a product; “People do not buy from clowns.” Even in the 1960s when humour was appearing in ads, some saw it as risky. 

Back then we felt the world was fucked; we had Thatcher, Reagan with his finger on the button; so what did we do? We partied.

“Claude C Hopkins was wrong in my opinion,” says Perlman, “When it’s smart and combined with a message, comedy is the best way to sell anything.” Instant mash brand Smash caused a sensation in the 1974 with one of the first great comic ads: “Cadbury’s must have shifted ridiculously large amounts of dehydrated potato thanks to those laughing Martians,” says director Becky Martin. But it wasn’t until the 80s that comedy began to really take hold. A 1989 study led by Arizona State University found nearly 25 per cent of prime-time US television advertising had humorous intent. Creatives had cottoned on to the marketing power of the mega-lol.

Comedy is so prevalent in US advertising now that droll Super Bowl spots are almost as much a part of the event as the game itself. But on the other side of the pond, some feel there’s a move away from humourCreative consultant Daniel Fisher says “Comedy has become a bit of an underused tool in the UK industry. There's been such a trend towards emotionally-driven and purpose-driven advertising it's almost like brands have forgotten how to do funny.” Coy Communications founder Mark Denton agrees, saying the flavour of the month is "worthy".

Is this because we live in serious times? Has the Brexit/environment/refugee crisis moved us from comedy to tragedy? “There is still a lot of comedy out there,” says director Rob Leggatt. “It's a strange world at the moment, so people want a laugh. So you do see comedy scripts, but many have been muted. You don’t see much bite to them.”

There’s a fine balance – and the gag may be more memorable than the product if you get it wrong.

Grey CCO Vicki Maguire agrees that these “weird times” cry out for fun and remind her of the 80s: “Back then we felt the world was fucked; we had Thatcher, Reagan with his finger on the button; so what did we do? We partied; there was the best music and art and the rise of alternative comedy.”

But advertising isn’t there to distract us from the fact that we’re all going to hell in a handcart. Numerous scientific studies, including a report in a 1993 Journal of Marketing, have found humour ‘enhances product recall and purchase intention’. So the brand must be remembered: “There’s a fine balance – and the gag may be more memorable than the product if you get it wrong,” says Martin.

Above: Michael C Hall stars in Skittles' Broadway Musical.

It helps if the product is tied into the humour. Who can forget the surreal singing rabbit in Skittles’ Trade? But the story of the swap is also strong. In the recent Skittles the Musical the product was woven into the entertainment.

The ad was also fashionably meta in its commentary on the ad industry itself, highlighting the change in comedy advertising that digital has wrought. The rise of social has us all busy commenting in an endless loop of echo chambers and digital mirrors reflecting back to us the irony of the age. One upside of this is the proliferation of the great comic form that is the spoof. The John Lewis Christmas ad has barely landed before the parodies begin, such as Gas Music’s droll Alternative Elton.

Also, digital has brought a wealth of opportunities to extend a joke. “[Digital] has brought the chance to play with different formats,” says Fisher, “look at the way brands like MailChimp and Snickers have extended their story across different platforms.” Droga5’s elaborate 2017 multi-media MailChimp campaign included not only various media activations – including shots award winning MailShrimp, but a line of chips and an anti-ageing cream.

MailChimp – MailShrimp

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Is there perhaps, too much going on? As director Bryan Buckley says, “In commercials, there’s a ton of noise out there.” Denton agrees: “I’m on social media all the time, there’s a lot of funny fuckers out there but they ain’t advertisers unfortunately.” 

With so much noise and distraction, along with shortening attention spans, brands need to attract attention quickly and a short, sharp, shareable gag is ideal. In 2000, John West’s Bear became the first viral sensation, but at 30 seconds it seems quite long now compared to even faster digital forms. Campaigns now needs to be meme-able as well as memorable – note the earned social media that the Tide Ads leveraged.

John West Salmon – John West Salmon: Bear

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But whether the format is short or shorter, the gag still needs to be funny as a lame joke can do as much disservice to a brand image as good comedy can enhance it, so what is the secret formula? Buckley describes a fail as “a commercial that looks and acts like a comedy spot, but the attention to detail is just not there. Whether it’s the creative’s or director’s fault – I always hold the director responsible because it’s their job to see it through.”

So how does the director get it right and does also being a writer help? Perlman says: “Having a feel for details and specifics can usually make something funnier.” I think every good comedy director and good comedic actor is probably a good comedy writer as well. It definitely helps and sure can't hurt.” 

Advertising is a mainstream medium, so I think the kind of humour that is right for it normally travels.

Leggatt says the key is in the casting, and relates how a revolutionary spot of casting for Right Guard’s Kung-fu Fighting saved the day. The original script had fit guys winning the fit women. 

Right Guard – Start Your Day Right With Right Guard

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In Leggatt’s version the dorky guys get the girls: “I wanted to invert it, but we had to really push to get those guys cast,” he recalls, “so we had a big man with a big beard being the face of Right Guard, but he was a good dancer; dignified and charismatic so it worked.”

Another factor to consider is how humour travels. What’s hilarious in Ulan Bator might not raise a titter in Woking. “It's true different regions have a different gauge of what’s funny,” says Fisher, “but advertising is a mainstream medium, so I think the kind of humour that is right for it normally travels.”

I think it gets harder, because so many things have been done before, so we find ourselves competing against some twelve-year-old kid yodelling, or whatever.

Obviously the most portable comedy is visual, a strength that the notoriously oddball Thai ad scene gets right: “Thai comedy is quite wacky with clear sight jokes so everyone can easily get it; that’s why people from around the world can recognise Thai ads,” says BBDO Bangkok’s chairman Suthi Sucharittanonta.

Vicki Maguire feels there’s a lot of quintessentially British humour around at present: “I'm proud when I look at stuff coming of KFC for example, the apology ad [a reaction to some of it's UK restaurants running out of chicken in early 2018] is dry, witty British comedy at its best. “A more woke or straight client wouldn’t have done that. They would have taken out an apology in The Times or something.”

Has ‘wokeness’ become a buzzkill creatively? Would PG Tips’s simian spots of 1971 now be viewed as disrespectful to removal men – or chimps? Could Geico’s touchy cavemen series upset sensitive minorities? With the recent response to Gillette calling out modern-day ‘neanderthals’, it’s easy to see how some clients might see these as risky times.

Humour can be a risk, but if done well can work in surprising situations. Denton recalls the Governments AIDS awareness campaign of 30 years ago: “I produced an ad promoting safe sex that featured an animated hopping winkle. It got loads of media attention (and my first D&AD pencil). Who would have guessed that raising a laugh was the right thing to do in those circumstances?”

So, as we ruminate on Denton’s hopping winkle, let us reflect upon the richness and variety of the great tool that is comedy advertising, which is still, largely, just as funny as it ever was. “I’m not part of that school that thinks ads used to be funnier back then,” says Buckley, “I think it gets harder, because so many things have been done before, so we find ourselves competing against some twelve-year-old kid yodelling, or whatever. There’s so much out there, the bar is both low and high at the same time.” 

Oh-uh! Maybe there is a finite amount of jokes in the world. As the Earth runs out of resources could mankind see low tide at the giggle pool too? We might have to start recycling old jokes… or travel to a far-off planet where we might find Martians eating rehydrated potato laughing hysterically.


[Illustration, top of page: Jessica Lewis]
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