Want to cut through? Make ’em laugh


At a time when the national mood is heavy, the smart move is to add a touch of levity to your marketing. Here’s how to use humour – without offending your audience or damaging your brand.

Earlier this year, when brands first began advertising on TV again 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 a little 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.

Meanwhile, Paddy Power resisted the temptation to ‘go dark’ and realised that people would be looking for an escape from the everyday gloom. 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 are undeniable. According to Marketing Week, “Paddy Power’s all-star darts matches have 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, Paddy Power’s share of voice had risen to 74% on Twitter and 65% on Facebook.”

Admittedly, Paddy Power isn’t to everyone’s tastes and its humour has proved controversial over the years, but this post-lockdown strategy has been a masterstroke. The content has engaged with consumers at a behavioural level by either a) reflecting back at them what they’re 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.

People love to laugh. We’ll do so even in the darkest of times, 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.

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.

As an example, were you offended by Spotify’s ‘ginger’ campaign, mentioned above? It’s a subject that’s certainly up for discussion – and often, as soon as that debate takes place, the easiest position is to err on the side of caution.

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.

Greggs offers a standout example of this in action and their launch of a vegan sausage roll in January 2019 was the standout marketing moment of the year. It all began with a YouTube ad that parodied Apple’s iPhone ads, which hailed its product as “the next generation of sausage roll technology”. An unwitting (possibly not; the jury’s still out) Piers Morgan jumped on the campaign, denigrating the “PC-ravaged” brand’s creation on Twitter and Gregg’s witty reply generated 145,000 likes on the platform and prompted a wave of viral and press interest.

Virgin Trains, KFC and Netflix are three other 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.

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 in today’s testing times.