Did you hear the one about…


Humour in advertising is both a fine art and a torrid minefield. Approach with caution.

Humour is personal. What some feel appropriate might make others squirm. Bad delivery of a good joke can easily make it a bad joke. But yet we still frequently attempt wit and wisdom to connect with our audiences.

There’s a technique that the marketing jargonistas call ‘ridiculous exaggeration’. I imagine it’s a concept rooted in the theatre, where gestures and statements have to be bold and obvious to be seen in the back rows of grand auditoria. But in real life they seem over the top.

Subtlety is a rare commodity when it comes to humour in marketing. To me, it’s the small things that make a witty ad smart and memorable. I’m loving the VTNZ Road Commander campaign. In the latest ad, where he’s heading to the beach, I smile at the contrast of his homely wife’s floral top and the inflatable flamingo in the back seat. It’s the little things that count.

The current danger with the use of humour is political correctness. I’m not criticising the idea of being PC – it’s called correctness for a reason. The issues that are in the field of play for comedy are ever changing, just ask any stand-up artist. Whatever topic you target, you have to know that your audience will relate and applaud your approach.

I never officially complain about much, but I did make a formal Advertising Standards Authority complaint about a car dealership TV ad that used ridiculous exaggeration combined with an offensive racial stereotype. I clearly wasn’t the only one disgusted by it as the ad was withdrawn.

How the advertiser could be so crass was one thing, but how they could mis-judge the audience, was beyond me. It’s not my humour and, I’m glad to say, it’s increasingly unfunny to the majority.

When deciding how to position your brand in the marketplace, or developing an approach for a new campaign, humour means you absolutely have to know your audience, more than with any other strategy.

And not only do you have to be in tune with your audience, but you have to be able to make it work. Wit and humour are hard to get right.

If I’ve had a constructive morning in my home office, I’ll occasionally allow myself to turn on the TV over lunch. I find myself experiencing the dubious pleasures of advertising for which I’m not the target market…yet!

Insurance companies advertising funeral cover seems to be a popular day-time ad buy. It’s a sensitive issue and finding new ways to tell the story is a challenge. Clearly.

There’s one where the couple is wearing nothing, with food and kitchen items strategically placed to avoid embarrassment. The script is littered with puns about leaving nothing to chance, having nothing to worry about. It doesn’t work for me…

Humour can be limiting in the longevity it affords a campaign too. Skinny’s current campaign, for example, introduces us to (presumably real) New Zealanders who happen to have the same name as famous celebrities. Funny at first. Cute the second week. But we get it now. The chicken has safely got to the other side.

If your approach hangs off a joke, you either need to hit hard in a limited timeframe, or find a joke that has legs that are long enough to run for the time you need.

Finding humour in the expletive is another really tricky option. Depending on our personal views, some words are worse to us than others. Words that are deeply offensive to some, are conversational fodder to others.

Saatchi’s award-winning Toyota ad of the early 2000s centred entirely around one single and now infamous word. At the time, the Advertising Standards Authority received 120 complaints at the use of the word ‘bugger’ in reaction to a series of on-farm mishaps but ruled that the ad was unlikely to cause offence and let it run.

The ad itself was brilliantly put together, a fact that perhaps helped people be more accepting of language they weren’t traditionally used to experiencing regularly on-screen.

It used the word in a context that reflected the humour of their audience and, at the time, of the nation. But our tolerance has been known to waver and I can’t help but wonder what reaction it would get today.

We don’t all have Toyota’s budget or history. We can’t all afford to take a risk. Humour requires confidence and understanding of your brand and your audience. Know them both well enough, it’s worth the risk. Don’t and it will be your competition that’s laughing hardest.


About Author

Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz