Make Me Laugh! The Power of Humor in Marketing Communications

Laughter feels good—and in marketing, it can provide a kind of cognitive jolt. It not only gives marketers an opportunity to shift consumers’ attention to whatever it is they want to show or tell them, but also help them to remember it.

As the father of a three-and-a-half-year-old boy (an age at which the “and a half” has become suddenly very important), I get to enjoy the power of eliciting laughter almost daily. For instance, say my boy is pouting because he doesn’t want to wash his hands before dinner. “Let’s pretend it’s not water coming out of the faucet,” I’ll say. “Let’s pretend it’s slime.” It works every time: laughter, the washing of hands, and smiles on the faces of parents and boy.

(Side note: This level of humor—the scatological, lower in sophistication than even the pun—just kills for most men at almost any age. But that’s fuel for an entirely different blog post.)

Humor comes in many forms: double entendres; absurd, ironic, or unexpected juxtapositions; story endings that subvert audience expectations; clichés imparted with a wink and a nudge; pratfalls. Look at some of the best ads around today and you’ll see what I mean.

Take NBC Sports’ promotion of English Premier League soccer coverage in the United States, featuring former Saturday Night Live comedian Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach who’s been hired to coach a Premier League team. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water setup, and it pays off repeatedly.

“We came up with a flashcard system in order for me to make American comparisons to English teams,” says Sudeikis.

“Manchester United. Super-rich, everybody either loves ’em or hates ’em,” says his assistant.

“Dallas Cowboys,” says Sudeikis.

“Liverpool. Used to be great. Haven’t won a title in a really long time.”

“Also Dallas Cowboys.”

See what I mean?

Other standout humor-based campaigns in recent times include the Old Spice Man (“Swan dive!”), The Most Interesting Man in the World for Dos Equis (“He once parallel-parked a train”), and (whose Let’s Talk About #2 goes full-bore scatological—again, see what I mean?). These final two examples are decidedly NSFW, so put on the headphones if you’re watching in your cubicle!

Humor works beyond just TV and video. Take this NPR print ad, for instance, which plays on the juxtaposition of the relatively calm and coy tone of typical NPR fare and the unbridled frenzy of the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament. For a host of other great print ads, many relying exclusively on visual humor, check out this link.

Of course, humor doesn’t work for some businesses or audiences. You wouldn’t want to go for laughs in marketing your funeral home, or if you’re trying to sell mission-critical IT security software to an all-business, all-the-time CTO. And humor that doesn’t quite work can be far worse than straightforward, bone-dry messaging. You’d be surprised, however, at how it can cut through the clutter of the marketing landscape for a whole range of businesses. It also can work in marketing efforts beyond print and TV ads—from PowerPoint scripts to web videos.

So, give it a try. Make humor part of your storytelling in your marketing content. Test any humor in marketing communications before you go public with it, of course. But go ahead—make me laugh.

By Eric Wilinski