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Using Humor in Marketing

Using humor to advertise is certainly nothing new, it has been a staple in marketing for decades. From the days of “Pop, Pop, Fizz, Fizz” to the modern-day GEICO “gecko” and Progressive’s Fern, humorous ads have dominated the airwaves. When the little green gecko first pounced across the screen in 1999, it changed the entire approach to marketing an uninteresting product that few found wanting but mandated by circumstances. “Insurance doesn’t make you happy very often, so we thought that the advertising should have a smile to it,” said the Martin Agency chief creative officer Joe Alexander. Before the introduction of the amicable, little green lizard’s introduction, GEICO was the eighth largest insurance company in America with just a 2 percent share of the market. Today the colorful character has helped jettison GEICO to the second-place position in the industry and initiated the industry in a game of follow the leader.

Using humor in marketing across industries can be very successful and a great instrument to increase product awareness and make a brand more memorable, but the effort can pose significant risks if not handled properly. As with all things marketing, using humor in advertising begins with developing the strategy. “The connection between corporate strategy and humor is clear,” says business transformation expert Gabor George Burt. “Like the navigation of a vehicle, smart strategies must guide an organization in the direction of ongoing relevance. The engine that propels the vehicle forward is innovation, and the engine’s fuel is creative. One of the key elements and manifestations of creativity is humor.”

But making a potential customer laugh will not reap any rewards if the targeted consumer does not recall the brand’s identity. A successful effort will create an impression in the minds of the consumer and strengthen a brand’s identity over time. Just like the comedian who misidentified the persona of the audience and told the wrong joke with poor timing, the result can be embarrassing and a career-ender.

Brands need to remember that they are not in the entertainment business and be sensitive to understanding a few do’s and don’ts before embarking on what they hope will be a humorous and successful marketing journey.

Rule number one, know your audience. Crafting an inappropriate funny and delivering it to an unappreciative consumer at the wrong time will produce disaster and serve only to instill a negative impression of the brand in the minds of potential customers. Do not make use of humor that is contrary to the values and reputation of the brand. Self-deprecating humor may work at a social gathering of known friends, but making fun of the brand’s product or reputation will backfire. A past advertisement of a favorite brand of cheese snacks depicting an eater’s orange hands after consumption may have made a few viewers chuckle in recognition, but did little to motivate others to seek out a bag of cheese curls. Avoid amplifying the product’s negatives, it rarely evokes a positive motivation or image in the minds of the consumer. Dead-pan humor can turn off an audience. No one wants to buy into someone else’s “mayhem.”

Choose the environment and stage wisely. Creating a lighthearted moment for men’s cologne while standing in a farmer’s field may result in viewers perceiving the fragrance as more in line with cow patties. And please, let us not go down the road of making fun of gastric relief. It may be pain-relieving but, depending on the time and place, it will not always be humorous. Irreverent humor that lacks decorum or seriousness and is disrespectful is a big no, no! Play to the whole audience. Inside humor will only confuse and disconnect with those not in on the joke, and above all do not use humor at the expense of others.

Know the right moment to spring the punchline and don’t over-tell the joke. Every funny act has its day and time when it becomes passe’. Humor has a time limit, avoid over-performing the stunt and move on. The famous camel walking through the office chanting “it’s hump day” tickled with saturation and had viewers longing for Friday and asking who let this big annoying guy out of his enclosure. April Fool’s marketing campaigns can be amazingly effective and humorous but fall miserably flat on April 2nd.

Humorous marketing campaigns are not a cure for all things. It is not a solution to falling revenues but when applied to the right product with the right message it can improve a brand’s performance and recognition over the long haul. Did you hear the one about….?