Of all the seven archetypes, humor in advertising is the most difficult to pull off, but when successful, it has the potential to launch your brand awareness and mark your company indelibly on the collective conscious of society.

The difficulties of comedy

First, let’s look at the challenges of comedy. Humor is subjective, so what one group of your target audience will find funny, another segment may not, and if the not-funny camp is loud enough, or are offended enough, they could actually hurt your brand.

It also depends on where they are. Funny in a boardroom may not translate to funny in a sports bar or on an airplane. Comedy is often visual, so advertising with it is best done in video form, which can be expensive to shoot and to buy airtime.

The art of comedy often focuses on the negative: bumbling idiocy and other human flaws that make us laugh—as long as we don’t see ourselves reflected in the character at whom we’re laughing. Unlike the other archetypes we’ve covered so far, you don’t want to cast your audience members as the hero in this kind of advertising. So then, how do you make it relatable to their lives and not just about you and your products or services?

One option is to exaggerate a situation we’re all familiar with. For example, we’ve all been frustrated by pens that skip, don’t write smoothly, or otherwise don’t work well. So this PaperMate ad takes that frustration and turns it up a few notches. The construction worker continually vibrating after using a jackhammer gets increasingly more absurd. He bumps into a car, setting off the alarm, annoys his coworkers by shaking the bench they’re all sitting on for lunch to the point where they abandon him, and he has to chase his sandwich in order to eat it. Then, magically, he’s given a PaperMate Profile pen to sign something, and it’s so smooth and easy to write with, it solves the vibration problem he’s having… temporarily. As a last laugh, we see him going into the portable toilet on the construction site and we can only imagine how that won’t end well.

In this ad, it’s okay to laugh at the construction worker’s plight because it’s not so negative that we find him stupid. He’s still relatable and likable, and therefore, the PaperMate brand remains relatable and likable.

Neurologically, we’re drawn to things that attract attention, both good and bad, though it’s often the bad—fear, anger, or sadness—that stand out more in our brains. Because of this, when we parody a bad emotion into humor, it’s often sarcastic or negative even though it feels good to laugh about it. That, however, doesn’t translate well when you’re trying to evoke a positive association with your products or services.

So what does work with comedy?

Humor tends to work best on products consumers don’t have to think too much about. Products that are:

  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Often consumables
  • Don’t require a lot of facts in their representation

These kinds of products leave room in the advertising for humor because you don’t need to impart as much information. Toys, food and beverages, alcohol, candy, and other entertainment related products tend to benefit most from campaigns aimed at our funny bones.

Audiences prefer entertainment over being pitched to, so people will pay more attention to a humorous ad than a dramatic or sentimental one. In doing so, they open themselves up to your brand’s influence. They’re paying attention, and for 30 or 60 seconds, your commercial is their focus. This is what you want. The key is that the humor is appropriate to both your product or service and the customer.

Now, we’ve all had the experience where a joke is overdone and becomes stale, so comedic timing of the length an ad series runs is as vital as it is in the ad itself. Successful ad series that go on too long can damage your brand as much as they might help at launch. Taco Bell eventually retired the talking Chihuahua, though if you say “yo quiero Taco Bell” to anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s, they’ll remember because that dog crossed from brand character to pop culture icon. The same can be said of Spuds Mackenzie, who starred in Bud Light ads in the late 80s. There were also the Budweiser frogs, who eventually were replaced with something else. Just as a comedic character’s entrance into the world of advertising matters, so does their exit, or you risk annoying your audience. And because humor goes stale quickly, in a series such as these examples mentioned, there have to be variations on the original theme, making these commercials expensive to launch.

Another way to capture your audience is with characters with different traits from their normal, everyday experience. As long as the character remains likable, even if they aren’t entirely relatable, your audience will pay attention. In Hollywood, some characters that traditionally fill villain roles we find ourselves cheering for if they’re likable enough, like Dexter and Hannibal Lecter. The difficulty inherent in this is fitting such idiosyncrasies into 30 or 60 second spots. But if the audience is captivated without recognizing themselves, it’s okay to laugh at these characters who make foolish or disturbing choices.

Humor is a great leveler as well. Small companies can compete with larger corporations if their laughable ad is done well, and the brand recognition that comes from such competition can be the difference that launches your business into the stratosphere. There is a balancing act to be walked, though, as you want to avoid the joke eclipsing your brand or its message.

For many of us, humorous ads are the only ones we’ll stop to watch. If something tickles our sense of humor, it doesn’t feel pushy or arduous when we’re subjected to it, and we can often forget we’re being marketed to. Comedy is powerful, but because of audience tastes, the subjectivity makes it difficult to pull off. However, if you can do so, it’s one of the strongest, most savvy investments you can make in your marketing strategy to get your brand out there and noticed.