Funny Advertising Doesn’t Work, Does It?

“Teach me how to write funny advertising,” my students used to say.

The best advice I can offer you is the same answer I gave them: Don’t.

Here’s an audio version of this article for your dining & dancing pleasure.

Spoiler alert: I’m kidding. But hear me out here, because the reasons I’m going to give you probably aren’t what you’re expecting.

It used to be “conventional wisdom” that funny advertising doesn’t work. Legendary figures in the ad world like Claude Hopkins and David Ogilvy decreed from on high that “people don’t buy from clowns.” For a long time, people obeyed. After all, who are we to disagree with Ogilvy?

Even David Ogilvy, though, mellowed on that stance a little, eventually. His beloved research suggested that funny advertising could sell. Thank goodness, because scores of great ads followed that managed to find the sweet spot between generating laughs and sales.

And why not? We love to laugh. Look at box office numbers for the last 25 years. Over that period, dramas in movie theaters outnumbered comedies by more than two to one. But in terms of ticket sales, the average comedy sells twice as many tickets as their more serious competitors.

Funny sidebar, here, in that if you look at the box office receipts, you see that the comedy genre started to take a nose-dive toward the end of 2016. Furthermore, for a period of about 48 months starting in January 2017, comedy films had their lowest percentage of ticket sales in movie history. Those numbers only started to rebound in January 2021 when the numbers tripled from the month before. I don’t make up the numbers, I just relay the information. And why it is that as a society we felt less like laughing for those four years is far beyond the scope of what we do here.

Thanks to other legends like Bill Bernbach and Dick Orkin, though, the business came to understand that funny advertising could work just as well as other types. Why? Because ads that played to people’s feelings had real impact. So in order to appeal to consumers’ feelings, the ads had to, on some level, be entertaining. And judging by our habits at the movies, comedy is just as viable a form of entertainment as any other.

The first job of your advertising – especially on radio, podcasting, TV and YouTube, is to create something that won’t inspire people to hit the ‘Skip’ button, or to punch over to another station.

And now we get to the reason why, when someone wants me to teach them to write funny advertising, I advise them not to.

Look, there are far more comedy movies that bomb at the box office instead of being worldwide hits. But there’s no reason to believe that comedy has a higher strikeout ratio than other forms of entertainment. Comedy is like an other art form: Some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t. Some stuff resonates with the audience, while others might hate it. For example, maybe you’ve heard of Nickelback.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to something I call “Enhancement Marketing”. The name comes indirectly from Seth Godin, who in my book is one of the most legendary marketing figures of all time. Seth refers to something he calls “Interruption Marketing.” Your enjoyment of a piece of entertainment is cut off like someone putting a kink in a garden hose. It happens when an advertiser has decided what they want to say is more important than whatever you’re enjoying.

Enhancement Marketing, on the other hand, takes what you’re already enjoying and seeks to give you more of it.

Therein lies the slippery slope.

Have you ever noticed that on YouTube, there’s a button that says, “Skip Ad”, but not a button that says, “Play Ad Again”? Even YouTube knows that most of what you’re going to see qualifies as interruption marketing. In other words, YouTube knows that most of the ads are bad.

The truth is that pretty much anyone who’s a decent copywriter can write a straightforward ad. In fact, I’d say the minimum requirement to even be called a copywriter is the ability to write a straightforward ad without breaking a sweat.

But what about an ad that makes someone cry? Or makes someone laugh? Or makes someone angry – for reasons other than the ad just being crappy?

Funny advertising is hard to write for the same reason it’s hard to write an ad that makes you cry. With a straightforward ad that says “Come to our store we’ve got blah blah blah,” all you have to do is get the information right and you’re done. The rules for funny are different. Not only do your words have to inspire me to become a customer, they also have to inspire me to laugh. What’s more, if you’re really doing it right, you’re doing both at the same time. You’re doing it in a way where the jokes don’t obscure the selling, And the selling doesn’t get in the way of the jokes.

It’s why every year at SuperBowl time, there’s a ton of advertising that’s just bloody awful. Some write commercials that aren’t as funny as they thought. Others write something brilliantly funny and at the end, no one could remember who it was for.

So let’s be clear: The reasons I’m giving to stay away from funny advertising are far different from what “the gurus” will tell you. And there are tons of gurus out there in the ad world who’ll tell you that, too.

As with all things, gurus tend to riff off the world as it looks from their perspective. And this little dose of context applies to far more than just writing funny commercials. Beware of any guru, teacher or coach who draws absolutes and tells you that this or that doesn’t work. I would suggest instead that more often than not, maybe the marketplace should decide.

Consider the guru who tells you never to do a certain thing, or that something is a waste of time. Maybe it’s about a funny commercial. Perhaps it’s about a choice of advertising platform. Could be a style of content, or even your choice of camera, microphone or software. Maybe the reason they tell you it’s a waste of time is because they couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves. And maybe their perspective is clouded by the perception that if they can’t do it, it just can’t be done.

But what if the problem isn’t with the methodology, but the execution?

What if you’re better at it than they are?

What if the guru who says, “Facebook ads don’t work,” just couldn’t figure out how to do it? Or maybe the guitar teacher who said, “You can’t put a D suspended 4th in a pop song,” never heard “Pinball Wizard”? Screenwriting coaches will tell you that your film has to show the element that’s central to the plot. Really? Did they not see The Big Chill, or Reservoir Dogs? Before Huckleberry Finn, it was anathema for an author to have multiple regional dialects written in dialogue.

Maybe the people who tell you not to write funny advertising, just aren’t as funny as they think they are.

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