Ad folks, want to make sure your socially conscious message gets heard? Start with a “spoonful of sugar." Yes, the one Mary Poppins famously said “helps the medicine go down." And as Funny or Die shows, humor is a pretty sweet way to do it.
Or consider how CBS News Correspondent Mo Rocca kicked off his Advertising Week panel examining exactly how to "leverage" the laugh.
"Today we’re going to be talking about famine and workplace discrimination," he began, followed by a litany of equally mood-dampening topics. (Pregnant pause.) “And it’s going to be hilarious.”
Well, maybe not hilarious every second. Among the first videos shown, “First World Problems,” featured Haitians reading tweets on such non-problems as: “When I have to write my maid a check and forget her last name.” The Haitians were standing by very Third World-seeming, sometimes bombed-out looking settings.
Rocca’s response to the video: “It’s not ha-ha funny. It’s kind of horrifying.”
Actually, when things are just horrifying, people “tend to look away,” but by adding low-key humor you get them to look again, countered panelist Ben Relles, head of content strategy at the YouTube Next Lab, involved in the video for the Water is Life association.
A witty approach can also get folks to pay attention to issues that are, as Rocca said, “about as interesting as watching paint dry” -- like the dysfunctions of the electoral college system, roundly skewered in a “CBS Sunday Morning” segment he did a few years ago.
Or workplace discrimination, tackled in a Funny or Die video in which Christina Hendricks, seemingly in character as “Mad Men”’s Joan, visits a present-day office, pouring martinis and trying to put typing paper into the top of a desktop computer. At everyone’s puzzled looks, she starts spouting stats on how women are still underpaid and discriminated against, ending with this thought: “If we’re going to run our businesses like it’s the 1960s, I’m going to act like it.”
That project originated through Funny or Die’s association with the White House (notable, of course, for Zach Galifianakis’ March interview with President Obama, which led to significant traffic to the Obamacare Web site). “How collaborative is Obama and company?” Rocca asked Bruss. “Do you say, ‘leave the funny to us’?”
“They’re very hands off,” about the creative, was Bruss’ answer.
Which brings up the delicate point of dealing with clients while creating this kind of work, since reactions to humor are so subjective. “I work for the Peace Corps,” said an audience member. “If the client isn’t the target audience, what kind of parameters do you set up to protect the integrity of the joke?”
“The stupider the joke, the more strategy you need” for client acceptance, said Benjamin Palmer, chairman & co-founder of agency The Barbarian Group. He suggested finding examples of jokes and “cultural trends” similar to the humor being discussed, and trying to quantify their appeal: “Go back into YouTube archives, and say, 600,000 people watched this video.” He added: While “most of the time clients are pretty smart,” still “we’re the ones who are pushing. We mostly think [they’re] not going far enough.”
But can you go too far, as with stand-up comedians who have a “no apology” rule?
In his time at YouTube, “I’ve only pulled one video,” noted Relles: a translation into Hebrew of the debate between two Presidential candidates in 2008. “The comments became so anti-Semitic, it just felt weird to have it up.”
“With the number of folks required to create a campaign, there are a lot of filters” -- unlike with tweets, where it’s just “one person not thinking things through,” leading to the potential for embarrassing/objectionable content, said Palmer. Of course, in the Internet age, the “joke finds the audience,” he added.
The Web has, indeed, made humor creation a bit easier, agreed the panel, since you can expand a piece’s time limit as well as appeal to the tiniest of niche audiences. It doesn’t have to be mass humor anymore.
Rocca also brought up the issue of treading the “fine line between funny and preachy,” and moving the audience toward action. One approach: “If you have a quantitative call and response built into the format like the ALS [Water Bucket Challenge], where one person makes a video and then asks [others to pick up the] challenge,” said Palmer.
One panelist cited John Oliver’s net neutrality rant on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” as another good call to action, since Oliver was suggesting that viewers write a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission and “go crash the site. People can see the effectiveness of what they’re doing in real time, and it becomes a news story.”