Humour in marketing is a serious business

1 minute read

Consumers have got a lot of worldly worries the moment, so as a business, the smart move could be to add a touch of levity to your marketing. Here’s how to use humour to make valuable connections – without offending your audience or damaging your brand.

Earlier this month, the train company Lumo launched a TV ad that was pretty funny. The premise was around using the company’s electric trains to combat ‘flight shame’ and features a character called Jen as she manically attempts bizarre eco strategies to ease her environmental guilt. Cue Jen turning her house into a forest and trading in her car for a donkey. Take a look, it’s better than we’ve described.

It’s a bit of light relief in a time of heavy news stories, and it reflects what happened in marketing during the darkest days of 2020.

Poking fun in the pandemic

When brands first began advertising on TV after the shock of lockdown, car companies, building societies and washing powder manufacturers were keen to let us all know that ‘In difficult times, we’re here for you’. It was faintly nauseating and perhaps even misjudged, but from a marketing perspective it was worse than that… it was bland. And with no live sport happening, even the gambling companies had resorted to using up their (presumably pre-paid) ad space with cautionary tales about, er, gambling, complete with ‘we’re here for you’ messaging.

Gambling company Paddy Power resisted the temptation to ‘go dark’ and realised that people would be looking for an escape from the everyday gloom. Amid the darkest days of the pandemic, the company threw itself into creating bright, engaging content with a scripted comedy series (The Mascot), and gag-fuelled videos about Zoom meetings and social distancing.

Not all of the jokes hit the mark, but the marketing results were undeniable. According to Marketing Week, “Paddy Power’s all-star darts matches had been viewed upwards of 20 million times across 20 different countries, while the brand’s share of voice among gambling brands on Twitter rose from 36% a year ago to 62%, and increased from 30% to 53% on Facebook. During the first 20 days of April 2020, Paddy Power’s share of voice had risen to 74% on Twitter and 65% on Facebook.”

Admittedly, Paddy Power wasn’t to everyone’s tastes and its humour has tended to prove controversial in the past, but post-lockdown this strategy was a masterstroke. The content engaged with consumers at a behavioural level by either a) reflecting back at them what they were seeing or feeling (‘It’s funny because it’s true’) or b) providing them with a ‘value exchange’ in the form of entertainment. Light relief.

Humour is always a hit

One of the main things the pandemic taught us is that, even in the darkest of times, people love to laugh – because that’s when it’s most necessary. How many funerals have been punctuated by stifled laughing? How many family rows have been defused in an instant by a trip, a fart or the dog deciding that right now would be the perfect time to be sick on the rug? And do we resent it when it happens? Absolutely not; it’s a welcome distraction.

Humour has long been used in marketing, advertising and branding because it’s an effective tool that can create award-winning, revenue-generating results. From the John West ‘Bear’ TV ad featuring a fisherman fighting a bear for its salmon, to the annual Spotify campaigns that poke fun at users for putting together playlists such as ‘I love gingers’ (featuring 48 Ed Sheeran songs), the power of a joke should never be underestimated. French Connection even sparked a business turnaround thanks to one neat branding wordplay gag: FCUK.

Tread carefully

Right now, humour in marketing is largely in decline and that’s possibly due to an abundance of caution from brands. In an age when viral outrage and cancel culture is par for the course on social media, it can take real nerve for a company to employ wit in a campaign. There’s usually a butt to a joke – and any marketing director willing to effectively endorse what could be seen as ‘victimisation’ needs to have a thick skin and the support of their peers.

Social media, however, delivers more reward than risk. For while there are some users out there who like to sling mud, many more appreciate and respond to humour. The brands that are using wit as a tool (and using it well) are cutting through to new audiences, getting picked up and shared by other media channels and generating ‘watercooler moments’ in real life.

Virgin Trains, KFC and Netflix are three noteworthy brands that are leading the way with their humorous tone – particularly on social – and are demonstrating that, when it’s done well, comedy is perhaps the most powerful tonal value a brand can deploy.

Do you have the stones?

So could your brand use humour as a tactic to reach and engage with wider audiences? It depends on the organisation and on your brand values. But that said, a standalone campaign certainly has its place and can offer an opportunity to temporarily try out a fresh approach. Pick your target carefully and even if your humour falls flat, at least you’ll have offered people a lighter, more positive perspective – and that’s something to be applauded.

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