The last two years have been the most challenging of our lifetimes. And while the worst of the pandemic is hopefully over, we live in a world impacted by economic and geopolitical unrest.
Against this backdrop, it is more important than ever for advertising to bring light relief into people’s lives, an opportunity to enjoy a moment or nod at the absurdity of something in what are often very serious times.
“Comedy has an amazing ability to help us heal and bring people together through universal truths,” says Stephanie Nerlich, CEO at Havas Creative Network, North America. “We’ve got heavy events happening around us and one of those moments we can smile comes through the lens of laughing.
“Increasingly, brands are welcoming that as an opportunity. Nobody is saying that the only way for a brand to communicate is through humour, it has to be authentic to the experience the brand provides. But it definitely feels like more brands feel they have that licence to be humorous compared with the previous couple of years.”
Use your superpower
“Funny is one of our superpowers and it’s underutilised currently,” says Sean McBride, chief creative officer, Arnold. “Humour isn’t going to be for every brand but it can certainly work for more brands than are doing it at the moment.”
One of the fears for brands considering the comedic route is that the joke doesn’t land or, worse yet, that it is considered offensive or distasteful. Thai Randolph, CEO at HartBeat and co-founder of Sugaberry, says brands and advertisers can often feel like they’re walking on eggshells when it comes to striking the right line.
“It can be a difficult challenge to navigate because there absolutely is a social contract now to be more responsible in our humour and more inclusive and respectful in how we communicate to people, even when we’re using a punchline,” she says.
“Getting that right requires empathy and being truly inclusive. That’s why it’s so important that we work to embrace creative communities that are really tapped into the audiences we’re trying to reach – that’s when it feels authentic.”
All marketers and advertisers are looking for authenticity, and there are very few platforms that have attracted authentic content creators quite like TikTok over recent years. Its global head of creative lab, Kinney Edwards, says that its diversity and authenticity have been two of the key qualities in attracting people to TikTok.
“Diversity is one of the most effective tools in storytelling,” he says. “People openly share their ideas with each other on TikTok and it's a place where we can listen, understand and co-create. Creators can freely express their ideas and with TikTok there is that opportunity to go from no followers and quickly scale.
“People are building communities around their humour and storytelling. It’s really driving a proliferation of different types and brands of comedy and there’s a really large audience that is curious to find out more.”
For all of that though, there will still be countless companies that shy away from the comedy genre, but Randolph says even serious brands can lean into comedy by focusing on everyday observations.
“Our brands and partners fall into two categories, some really like to leverage comedy as a tool whereas others will say ‘oh, we are not a fun brand’. But there is a distinction between those of us who craft comedic content and stories, and the humour we find in everyday life, whether that’s sarcasm, irony, or slapstick. Every brand is crafted by humans and we all have a sense of humour.”
Randolph cites the advice of Hartbeat investor and global comedy megastar Kevin Hart for brands trying to find their comedy chops. “Kevin always tells us in the creative process that we have to make the content grounded. So I think there’s an art to developing content that hones in on those everyday incongruences, that makes you smile or laugh at the absurdity of basic human truths.”
One of the most effective uses of comedy in advertising is randomness, but McBride says that any brand attempting to tap into that method should do so with caution.
“There are brands like Skittles and Starburst that have really harnessed randomness, it’s some of the funniest work you’ll see,” he says. “But they completely understand their universe, they know the rules, and they know their voice. But you see other brands that haven’t figured out those rules, so it’s a formula that only works in the right hands.”
Asked whether we might start to see some brands becoming braver Nerlich says: “Brave clients will become braver and the less brave brands less so. But what I see is more clients are willing to let the magic happen more, so they’re writing the crap out of their ideas on a piece of paper but they’re more prepared to let it play out a bit differently.
“They’re allowing what happens naturally to become their guiding light. I think clients are willing to start doing that again, whereas last year we were working in pretty tight boxes.”
The experts’ funniest ad campaigns — and why
Sean McBride: The Most Interesting Man in the World
Thai Randolph: Old Spice
Kinney Edwards: Skittles Touch
Stephanie Nerlich: Apple at Work - The Underdogs