Cast your mind back to the early 2000s and you might remember Budweiser's 'Wassup' campaign. The ad featured nothing more than a few men on the phone to one another, 'watching the game, having a bud,' but the catchphrase of 'wassup' that takes over the latter half of the commercial became an immediate hit, and has been parodied in everything from films like Scary Movie to The Simpsons. The ad may be nonsensical, but it struck just the right tone in terms of comedy and it demonstrated that Budweiser knew its audience inside out.
The debate over whether or not humor is effective as a form of advertising goes back further than you may think, with some of advertising's biggest names weighing in to warn against using it. Renowned advertiser John Caples, for example, said: 'Avoid humor. You can entertain a million people and not sell one of them. There is not a single humorous line in two of the most influential books in the world, namely, the Bible and the Sears Roebuck catalog.' While the grandfather of modern advertising, Claude Hopkins, said: 'Don’t treat your subject lightly. Don’t lessen respect for your self or your article by any attempt at frivolity. People do not patronize a clown. There are two things about which men should not joke. One is business, one is home. An eccentric picture may do you serious damage. One may gain attention by wearing a fools cap. But he would ruin his selling prospects.'
These are dated views. The development of advertising has been such that audiences are bombarded with sincere product commercials every single day and, against a backdrop of both bombastic and earnest ads, those that use comedy will cut through the noise. When attention is a commodity and brands are all vying for just seconds of their audience's time, comedy is a way of ensuring there's something in it for both parties.
One particularly successful example of this was Old Spice's 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' campaign - you might remember it, the one that ends with a man on a horse. Old Spice's brief came together following research that revealed women were still doing the vast majority of the shopping for bathroom products, which meant men were using women's shower gel as opposed to that which is marketed specifically at them. So, the company began looking at ways it could sell to both men and women while presenting a product aimed very much for the use of the former.
To speak to women without alienating men is the brief that Old Spice ran with. It put together a sharp, funny, genuinely memorable ad that mocked advertising convention and, in turn, produced a great advertising. The exaggerated paragon of 'manliness' was an immediate hit, reach cult status and tallying up 54 million views on YouTube.
Another well-received ad was Dollar Shave Club's 'Our Blades Are F***ing Great'. The 93 second ad tore into the more ridiculous developments within the shaving industry and undercut them with honest comedy. It showed that the company were able to laugh at themselves, and that they're able to see that razors can be just that, without any additional gimmicks. It clearly struck a chord, and the ad has been viewed on YouTube over 25 million times.
What Dollar Shave Club realized is that men have been bombarded by slick, unnecessarily sincere advertisements for razors for their entire lives. The male model, in an impossibly modern bathroom, grinning whilst shaving with a razor that has more features than your iPhone before being fawned over by a beautiful woman - this is essentially every shaving advert to date. Much like car ads, commercials for razors are notably and gratingly humourless and self-aggrandizing, and Dollar Shave Club filled what now looks like an easy gap in the market.
What both Dollar Shave Club and Old Spice's campaigns tell us about comedy in marketing is that campaigns that play with conventional ad formats will resonate. Old Spice caricatured traditional advertising techniques, both those that target men and those that target women. Dollar Shave Club stripped away the ridiculous tropes of razor advertising - used time and time again by the established incumbents - to create what comes across as an honest, to the point commercial.
It is, however, important to get comedy right. Comedy is a subjective thing, and it's important that brands take measures to prevent offence, particularly in the age of constant online dialogue, in which companies can be torn apart for insensitive or offensive commercials almost immediately on platforms like Twitter. Groupon found this out the hard way in 2011, when it ran an ad campaign in which Timothy Hutton began by describing the difficulties in Tibet, mimicking the style of charity campaigns. The advert then switched to him sitting in a restaurant, saying: 'But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!' and describing Groupon's local deals. To some, the ad was funny, to others deeply insensitive, and the company met a strong backlash. There are countless other examples of badly received comic ads, too, and brands should be careful that their humor will translate outside of their own offices.
Equally, it's all too possible that an ad just isn't funny. Being a good marketer doesn't necessarily mean having a good sense of humor, and brands should know when to bring in external help rather than assuming they have the talent to create a universally funny commercial. At its best, though, humor in advertising has the power to make even the most commonplace and uninspiring products interesting, and if it can be pulled off without any cynicism or offence, it's perhaps the most effective marketing method in the digital age.