Posted by Sarah Weigold
3 April, 2019

In life (and in branding) being truly funny is incredibly hard. With humour being so infuriatingly subjective and the potential for an offence-driven social media backlash currently at an all-time high, it’s a wonder anyone risks joking at all.

Yet, every year brands spend billions trying to be funny – because when it works, it really works. In our world of information overload, amusing things catch our attention like nothing else. For the few who do humour well, viral fame, talkability and content sharing await. Remember the latest campaigns from Milka and Tidal? No? That’s because no one does. But how could you forget the Cadbury’s Gorilla or Spotify’s sassy posters?

As public distrust in brands and advertising grows, a good sense of humour goes a long way to making brands seem more human and authentic. Nothing says ‘we’re not a soulless multi-national corporation’ like a few self-deprecating quips on Twitter. With over 1,700 stores nationwide Greggs should feel like a bland chain, yet thanks to some #topbants with Piers Morgan and some cheeky stunts, it’s seen as a mouthy underdog and cult favourite (not down here in Cornwall, mind).

Humour may be incredibly powerful, but it’s also a high-stakes game. The rewards for a good joke are big, but the repercussions of a bad- or dad-joke are much, much worse. So, how can you be sure of a successful joke? Humour is no exact science, but it’s this elusive and unpredictable quality that makes the really funny things stand out. While there’s no formula for being hilarious, here are four tips for guiding your humour towards funny (haha) rather than funny (peculiar/odd/downright offensive).

1) Lighten serious subjects with humour, but don’t be flippant.

You most likely went to school with a kid who seemed to get away with murder, because no teacher could keep a straight face while telling little Johnny off for his hilarious antics. If not, maybe you had a co-worker who seemingly did very little but was considered a great colleague thanks to their side-splitting contributions to office banter. A good sense of humour – in British culture at least – will counter most negative qualities or actions.

When used well, wit can be the ultimate spoonful of sugar to help bad news go down. Following the Great Chicken Crisis of 2018, KFC released a print advert featuring a self-deprecating rejig of their logo. Received as a ‘perfect apology’ on social media, the tone of the advert made KFC seem human, and the public began to see the funny side of the whole situation.

But humour is not a silver bullet for all serious situations. KFC’s lighthearted apology about chicken shortages was well received, but would have been entirely inappropriate for a more severe situation, like an outbreak of food poisoning (oh FCK, you’ve got salmonella). And humour is a complete no-go for some sectors, where being sincere and trustworthy are of ultimate importance. Death industry start-up Beyond recently tried to stand out in their market with a tongue-in-cheek billboard for cremation services. The adverts were instantly banned and the company was vilified in the media for being offensive. Whilst the classic get-your-advert-banned-for-free publicity move might work for a soft-drink company, budget airline or even the Archbishop of Canterbury, it’s a sure-fire way to ruin the brand of a funeral provider, an industry where sensitivity sells.

2) Make the mundane fun – but don’t get annoying.

Modern life can be pretty boring. While our ancestors could look forward to the excitement of a sabre-tooth tiger attack or surprise visit from marauding vikings, we spend most of our days sending emails. Our working lives in particular can be so repetitive and mundane that even the tiniest bit of humour can bring real joy.

Google does a great job of injecting a bit of fun into the dull task of searching the web with its constantly changing doodles. While it’s unlikely that the next BAFTA for outstanding comedy performance will go to a Google doodle, the visual wit of letters hiding in ever-changing scenes gives the user a reason to enjoy returning to the site time and again. All of this is achieved without interfering with the function of the site.

Brands are like people: those who try to be funny all the time quickly get annoying. I personally cannot stand Innocent packaging. While the intention to make packaging more fun is noble, the cutesy poems and pointless additions seem like a patronising waste of space to me, getting in the way of important information, like the ingredients. And don’t get me started on the unsolicited lifestyle advice: “If you’re reading this you must be bored. So why not try doing this stuff instead: weed the garden path, top up the dishwasher salt, go to the park and talk to the squirrels. Go on. Off you pop.” YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER, YOU’RE A CARTON OF SQUASHED FRUIT!!! The worst thing is that Innocent’s success has spawned a trend for ‘wakaging’ meaning that you’ll now struggle to find a bottled drink who isn’t trying to be your best mate.

3) Use visual references, but don’t spell them out.

Comedy often involves referencing information not provided but needed in order to get the joke. Making people work to understand a joke sounds counter-intuitive, but audiences love it. We enjoy piecing the clues together and that 'aha' moment of smugness when we get it. We pat ourselves on the back for our superior intelligence and cultural knowledge, even if a joke is so painstakingly obvious that a Labrador puppy could understand it.

Nivea’s advert shows the power of a well-executed visual gag. Referencing the moon is a smart move, because every sighted person must know what the moon looks like, making it the closest thing to a universal symbol for nighttime. The visual pun is used to reinforce the advert message rather than it just being a funny aside. It’s a beautifully simple layout, totally committed to the visual gag but considered enough that if you don’t get the joke, you’d still see a large image of the product, the brand logo and brand colour, which is perfectly fine for an advert.

My heart goes out to the poor creative who came up with this concept for TfL, only to have the client chicken out and force them to literally spell it out below. If you need to use brackets, your design is not working. Perhaps if the image was clearer (it actually showed a piece of cake rather than the remainder of a cake) you could have gone bracketless? Maybe the bracket police should have considered the context: the poster was used on the London underground where commuters are likely to stand staring at it for at least a few minutes every single day. If that isn’t enough time for them to work out the joke, then there’s no hope.

4) Have fun with words, but make sure everyone is in on the joke.

Wordplay has a reputation for being the lowest-hanging comedic fruit, but to the copywriter it’s an invaluable way to use words economically, getting two sentences for the price of one with a double entendre. Using words creatively can do wonders for a brand, as breaking the rules of traditional English gives an air of subversion and cheeky irreverence. But be warned that your love for puns could be really screwing up your SEO, as computers don’t have a sense of humour (yet).

Spotify’s pitch-perfect play on classic song lyrics expertly appeals to their target audience of music lovers while demonstrating the brand’s appreciation of music culture and tapping into a bit of 80s nostalgia. The wordplay doesn’t feel awkward or shoehorned as the sentence is complete and makes sense, even without the reference. Importantly, the wordplay works both visually and when read out loud – something many of the worst puns fail to do. We all know the power of a song to lodge itself in our consciousness, so hijacking lyrics for advertising purposes is the move of an evil genius.

I can just imagine the room full of advertising execs high-fiving each other for ‘totally smashing’ the Apocalips Wow pun. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of them were middle-aged men, because who else would think that 70s Vietnam War films are a common reference or in any way related to make up? Even if Rimmel’s 18-25 female target audience miss the film reference, they’re still left with the term apocalypse, which it’s fair to say, has slightly negative connotations. I personally struggle to see the connection between the end of the world and bright lips, but that might just be me – I’m not really a lipstick person.

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