Humour won’t always win the advertising game

When we think of our favourite adverts, it’s often the case that their memorability comes down to humour. A bit of wit can do brands a world of favours – think “compare the meerkat”, “should’ve gone to Specsavers”, or the drumming Cadbury gorilla – the list of successful humour-led campaigns is endless.

But is humour always the winner? In a world where everyone is chasing that ‘viral moment’ in their content due to an increasingly competitive and face-paced online environment, it’s easy to get lost in this idea. It’s easy to sacrifice quality or meaning on the altar of cheap laughs, which may attain good reach initially, but might do your brand some damage in the long run. 

Success comes down to balance. You need to consider what the humour in your ad actually means. Does it relate to or build upon your brand? Or does it actually take away from the confidence and sincerity you’ve previously established? 

Take Fedex, for example. For over 50 years, their marketing teams have been treading the tightrope of humour, swaying between seriousness and playfulness with a watchful eye upon brand image at all times. They began with a highly successful tagline:  “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” This was followed up with perhaps their most successful humorous ‘Fast talker’ ad, that cast actor John Moschitta as a manager intensely conversing over the phone to organise meetings and track packages. 

Despite much success, Fedex has always been sure to keep an eye on how this use of humour sits in relation to brand image. Fedex is a brand that relies on a perception of reliability and timeliness. Overuse of humour could satirise their brand, turning them into a caricature. So in recent years, FedEx has let go of their overly slapstick approach to ads, instead deploying a more emotionally charged message in 2018 – ‘What we deliver by delivering’.

It’s important for all brands to do this when considering the use of humour. To make sure your laughs don’t end up doing more harm than good, here are some rules to follow. 

Understand your audience 

If your audience expects sincerity, then don’t give them laughs. You’ll lose confidence, and erode away at the credibility of the brand you’ve built. Humour only works where it’s appropriate, and forced humour for the sake of it will not sit well in the wrong context.

Be consistent 

If you’re going to adopt a more humorous tone for an ad, then this needs to be reflected across all channels. If an ad’s tone of voice is completely out of touch with the rest of your output, then it won’t resonate with your audience or connect with your brand effectively. 

Variety is key 

A joke might be funny, but when someone drops the same line for the eighth time in a row, are you still laughing? Humour is successful when a joke is recontextualised in different situations, so don’t get creatively complacent after an initial success.

If you consider these rules, you’ll be able to retain your brand identity and respect, whilst injecting what could be an extremely successful dose of humour into your ad content. Just make sure it’s at the right time, and in the right place.