Hilton, 'Onion' Create Humorous, Effective Campaign

Whenever the GEICO “gecko” comes on, I quickly mute the TV or leap across the room to turn off the radio. I find that creature incredibly annoying and wouldn’t buy insurance from that company even if I could save 100% in one minute. And that demonstrates the potential pitfalls of using humor in marketing. When it’s well executed and, well, funny it can be richly rewarding. When it’s not, well…

The reason to discuss this was the recent and somewhat unlike pairing of Hilton Hotels & Resorts, the most venerable of hospitality brands, and The Onion, the humor factory that produces print, web and video comedy that persistently infiltrates the cultural atmosphere.

Hilton teamed up with The Onion for its new Hilton Urgent Vacation Care Center, an interactive site featuring humorous diagnoses of vacation needs and customized prescriptions for people suffering from “Vacationitis.” Onion Labs, the creative services division of the news satire organization, illustrated cartoons that depict common symptoms such as “Straight to Voicemailaria (a chronic avoidance of client calls); or “Replyallgia,” the result of a flood of “reply all” emails. They are featured on a new site, and have been designed to be shared by social media.



Of course, Hilton is not alone in moving to humor at a time when a comedy show, “The Daily Show,” seems to have more credibility than network news shows. And Hilton is not alone. Other examples of recent efforts to have consumers laugh all the way to their products include: 

  • KFC and Comedy Central creating a web series called “Growing Up and Getting Out” about Millennials moving back in with their parents.

  • To promote the benefits of streaming movies from Netflix, influential YouTube humorist Mark Malkoff watched more than 250 movies on Netflix streaming in one month.

  • Home Depot turned to the popular site, for humorous e-cards. creates branded cards for sharing on social media.

Hilton is being very playful about it all  -- while at the same time getting a strong message across. The website asks visitors to take a quiz to receive their "vacation diagnosis." Visitors are asked when they last took a vacation and how long it was; during which activities, such as a child's birth or a first date, they check their office email; how long their commute is; and which activity they "look forward to most if/when" they take a vacation.

The site also urges visitors to "stop vacationitis before it spreads" and to view and share the disease's 14 symptoms, illustrated by Onion Labs' cartoons. These symptoms include "acute cancelitis," "commuteritis," "cubiclophobia" and "yellow Post-It fever." 

The customized remedies the site prescribes for visitors are vacations of different lengths and types, determined by how severe a case of "vacationitis" visitors have. The site might recommend a weekend getaway near home or a longer vacation at a destination farther away; all recommendations include links to Hilton Hotels and Resorts' online booking engine.

The site also features an incentive to generate interest -- a contest, running through Feb. 28, that offers 15 weekend getaways as prizes. 

Wisely, Hilton went to the experts to create the campaign. Andrew Flack, vice president, global brand marketing, said that when Hilton "decided to take a humorous approach, we got only so far ourselves. We approached The Onion. They're experts at making fun of life. And they have their own audience they can share the site with, an attractive demographic 18 to 45, at the younger end of the Hilton demographic. It's an audience of up-and-coming travelers and an attractive audience for us." 

The new Hilton site will be featured on the in-room television channel in the brand's hotels and in brief Hilton ads on Facebook and Twitter.

So, sure, use humor because it might reach a different demographic. But make sure it fits in with the brand message. And take a page from Hilton and work with folks who have proven to be funny.

And please – no geckos.

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