Is Your Funny Ad Worth the Risk?

Humor is one of the riskiest bets in advertising. Some ads win big – having humor that generates interest, brings in customers, and works longer by going viral. Some spots split the pot — entertaining the masses, but doing nothing for the brand. Then there are the big losers, whose jokes actually drive away business and damage the brand.

With rewards that are so great, you don’t want to stay away from the table. But, how do you reduce your risk?

Give your brand the right role in the joke. A really funny ad that doesn’t connect with your brand can generate attention and buzz, but won’t contribute to your brand image or to your bottom line. To drive motivation, your brand needs to be present in the humor, without being the butt of the joke. Make sure your brand plays the right role in the story to get the most and the best credit for the funny.

The Windex raven campaign introduced a pair of foul fowl as they reveled in adolescent pranks played on unsuspecting suburbanites. The two ravens marveled at the streak-free shine of the glass and tricked the man into walking into a previously open, now closed, sliding glass door.



Even though the brand is unusually positioned as a problem, its key benefit of clear glass is the source of the humor and is integral to the story.

Make sure your audience knows its role in the story. If there’s a key character the audience needs to relate to, make sure they can recognize it. Does your audience need to view your ad as a concerned parent? a new homeowner? a disgruntled customer? Make it clear. The wrong perspective can make a joke fall flat, or even worse, damage the brand.

Brawny’s “Chili” presents an obviously relatable character – a guy who has accidentally spilled his lunch on the break room floor. And the spot reflects viewers’ deepest, darkest instincts to run from a mess when no one has witnessed its origin. Fortunately, Brawny is there to provide the solution for the problem at foot.

Know your joke’s structure. Have a hysterical :30 you want to cut to :15? Make sure you know and keep the critical beats of the joke. Is there a :15 you want to extend to a :30? Make sure you enhance the joke and don’t extend short bits past funny to annoying.

In the :30 version of United Healthcare’s “Lamppost” spot, the main character’s texting and walking induces obliviousness that becomes a scourge to taxis and pedestrians alike. His final fall, therefore, is just desserts.

However the :15 version eliminates the set-up and diminishes the humor because the final outcome is no longer comeuppance, but rather a highly unfortunate incident that could happen to anyone.

If viewers miss the set-up, the punch line isn’t funny. Your set-up doesn’t have to be as attention-getting as your payoff, but it has to be attention-getting enough so the payoff makes sense. An early hook ensures viewers know enough at the beginning to get the big payoff at the end.

In “All-Nighter” from Twix, the Right Twix and Left Twix references are rather quick and subtle, as is the cascade vs. flow dialogue. If viewers miss these set-ups, the payoff of the Left and Right Twix sides doing the exact same thing loses its humor.

Interestingly, the best set-up was actually in a different ad. The Right Twix vs. Left Twix individual spots can be funny, but their humor is greatly enhanced by this origin story where we learn that the Twix co-inventors had a disagreement which led to the creation of two factories which process the cookie differently.

Never assume! The best comics test their material on the club circuit before using it in their HBO special. Shouldn’t you? Humor is subjective, and your team may be unaware of cultural and/or knowledge biases that aren’t shared with the target audience. Testing your concepts can help you optimize your chances of a successful and funny ad.

If you've got other good examples of humor in advertising, please post links to them in the comments below.

2 comments about "Is Your Funny Ad Worth the Risk?".
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  1. Neil Mahoney from Mahoney/Marketing, April 6, 2016 at 2:47 p.m.

    As a Sales Mgr, also functioning as Ad Mgr, we had a B2B product that cost money to install.  We ran a campaign titled "put the bite on Acu-Rite" that offered free installation.  The illustration featured a stuffed alligator doll and promised a free doll in addition to free installation.  It created a lot of laughs in the marketplece and generated a lot of interest from prospects. 

    As NSM I got lots of calls from prospects who wanted assurance they'd get the doll if they made the purchase -- most calls were jocular, but sincere.  Best of all, the campaign gave added motivation & loyalty from our distributors.  This motivation lasted far longer than the campaign.

    Well-placed humor really sells.

  2. Eldaa Daily from Ameritest, April 20, 2016 at 8:15 a.m.

    Hi Neil,

    It certainly does! And you did a great job using the copy to tie the humor of the stuffed aligator to your product and your message!

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