Is humour in advertising a dying art form?

Rob Fletcher, isobel
- Marketing - Nov 14, 2016

The following events are true. Names of individuals and organisations have been changed to protect the innocent.

A few years ago we were working on an advertising campaign for a famous computer games company. We had come up with a series of very funny press ads and we presented them to the client.

Now remember, these were very funny press ads. For some strange reason the client didn’t laugh. But they were very funny. “They’re not funny” the client pointed out. “But they are very funny” we said. “No they’re not”. “Yes they are”. In the ensuing stalemate it was decided we needed an independent arbiter.

Chris Donald, the founder and editor of Viz magazine, was a funny man, so we agreed we should let him decide.

He said he didn’t get out of bed for less than £10,000. But luckily enough for us, he had a laptop on his bed side table and would do it for a nominal fee. He read the ads and agreed that the ads were in fact, very funny.

The client gracefully accepted defeat and the ads ran.

What’s the moral of my story? Quite simply; it’s hard to be funny in advertising. Stylish. Fashionable. Energetic. Cool. These are easy things to replicate in advertising.

You hire a fashion photographer like Rankin, a model like Gigi, you’re pretty much guaranteed cool.

You stick Tom Hiddleston in a helicopter and whizz him over Milanese rooftops, you can promise stylish.

CMOs, CEOs and CFOs like hard evidence. So it should be no surprise that agencies like to present ideas where the evidence is easily provided. Mood films, mood books, tear sheets.

Humour and comedy rely on timing, nuance, and performance. Things you can’t rip out of a magazine. Delicate subjects that are hard to replicate in the meeting room. It comes in the doing.

You could have all the right ingredients, famous actors, good director, and still end up with something awful. Just ask Tesco.

So what am I saying, that comedy is dying in advertising?

To the contrary. Our media landscape is changing; budgets are dropping, and agencies (including mine) are making more and more films that don’t have a £5 million media spend behind them. These films are for Facebook, YouTube, etc. and a lot of them have hardly any media behind them at all.

The process in making these types of films is quick, nimble, more “off the cuff” and doesn’t have to go through the torturous rounds of analysis and research you find with TV ads.

What we write on a Monday is often shot on a Thursday and is online for the weekend.

The lower budgets remove so much risk and the rapid turnaround allows us to be more spontaneous.

We make stuff, put it up, what works well we do again, what flops we drop and put it down to learning.

Our Facebook films for one client get on average 1.7m views, with virtually no media budget. But most importantly they get thousands of comments - telling us what is good and bad. It’s like a live audience at a stand up comedy night.

This environment is a breeding ground for humour. It hones the mind. We can’t all impress with helicopters and big name actors, nor can we all seduce with CGI and cinemascope landscapes at dawn.

We use our wit and cleverness instead. We try to be funny.

My wife didn’t start going out with me because I had a flash car and loads of money. It’s because I made her laugh.

Funny isn’t related to big budgets, it’s related to how early you get up, how long you stay after everyone else has gone home, how much you fret and worry over a script.

Big budgets bring pressure. TV ads bring pressure. The online environment brings freedom. Allowing us to make a few mistakes, get things wrong.

And as a result, get things very right.

Read the November 2016 issue of Business Review Europe magazine. 

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