The rites of spring: snow melts (eventually), birds return, and high school seniors head to the prom. Tickets, dresses, tuxes, and, of course, the corsage. As for that last detail, well, KFC has a little something to help out the guys: a fried chicken corsage for your date, of course.

The video is remarkably funny, considering what often passes for marketing among corporations. And at more than 740,000 views, it's bordering on so-called viral success.

The boy presents the corsage with the words, "It's original recipe. I know how much you like original recipe." The girl gives him an odd look and then glances back at her parents. The father smiles, the mother confusedly shakes her head. Then she brings her wrist to her nose and inhales. "That smells wonderful." And she smiles.

Very smart and very funny. The video continues, looking as though it's now going on too long until... well, watch it.

Although not announced on April Fool's Day, the corsage might as well have been. A "publicity stunt" is what some call it. I'd say smart marketing that uses humor. There were only 100 fried chicken corsages available and they sold out, with another batch of 100 in the works.

Working humor into marketing is a lot harder than it sounds. Humor in general is tough. People differ in their senses of humor, so finding a common point is difficult.

Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder and co-author with Joel Warner of the book "The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny," has studied the intersection of humor and marketingHumor can be a great aid in marketing because it can "cut through the clutter" of messages that bombard people every day, said McGraw in an interview last month. "People notice them, they remember them, they're more likely to share them," he said. "They meet a lot of the criteria that you're looking for in terms of creating content. That's the upside. But of course everything that has an upside has a downside."

Ah, the downside. There are three big risks in using humor in your marketing:

  • You can fail. You might either bore or offend people, and if any of them are in your target demographic, you're in trouble. As McGraw put it, humor arises from "benign violations." You need break a social construct or taboo, but in a way that doesn't come across as mean, insensitive, or dangerous.
  • You could be funny and yet fail to connect the humor with the message you're trying to deliver. People remember the humor and don't see the connection with the brand you're promoting, otherwise known as a major waste of time and money.
  • The humor can backfire if you're trying to convince people that there is a problem they need to solve. "Because humor is associated with play, people may think your problem is not so much of a problem anymore," McGraw said.

To make humor work with marketing, you have to integrate the two throughout the message. The KFC chicken corsage does this beautifully. The violation is clamping a piece of fried chicken to a corsage for a prom, and yet it is a benign transgression. Throughout the video the viewer is told that the smell and taste of the product is so appealing as to overcome the absurdity of the concept. There are even reinforcing mentions of the brand, both at the beginning and end and even with the reference to "original recipe."

KFC hit the humor right. As to whether the chicken corsage sets a new standard in prom fashion, let's hope not.