Old Spice. Taco Bell. E-Trade. Blendtec. Budweiser. Some of the most memorable advertising campaigns in recent history, regardless of company size and marketing budget, and whether broadcast, print or online-only, have involved humor. As an audience, consumers most enjoy being entertained instead of pitched, and so appealing to them emotionally can lead to further engagement with your product in the future. Utilizing social media can be an inexpensive and extremely effective way to do that. 

For example, when you're a company like Cisco selling $100,000 computer routers, it can be difficult to put a commercial together that will appeal to anyone but hardcore tech programmers. But thinking creatively and beyond the product, you can create something that becomes a viral hit and appeals to your customers, while also allowing others who may have zero intention to buy your product to share it with their friends, raising brand awareness.

So why should your company use humor in its advertising? How can you implement it into your overall marketing strategy? Those questions and more will be answered in this guide.


How to Use Humor in Advertising: Why Advertise With Humor?

According to a 1993 Journal of Marketing study that examined multinational effects of humor on advertising (a study that still stands true), the major conclusion was that 'humor is more likely to enhance recall, evaluation, and purchase intention when the humorous message coincides with ad objectives, is well-integrated with those objectives, and is viewed as appropriate for the product category. Under such circumstances, humorous advertising is more likely to secure audience attention, increase memorability, overcome sales resistance, and enhance message persuasiveness.'

Humor should not be the only form of advertising your company employs. Particularly when you're selling a very specific product, you need to give your customers valuable purchasing information and specifics, but without hitting them over the head with it. Spend money on traditional advertising that will actually lead to conversions for your leads, because that's where the bulk of your business will come from. But occasionally adding humor into the equation when it's least expected can be a great way to show customers that you care not just about sales, but about their individual satisfaction. You can do this in your blog, via your company's social media presence, or in a traditional advertising campaign.

'It still takes a lot of work to sell an entire organization on an ad campaign that employs humor, particularly on social media platforms,' says Tim Washer, a senior social media and marketing manager for Cisco Systems in New York City and a comedy writer/actor who has worked with Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, David Letterman and more. 'Typically you have an entire marketing group and the whole fiber of your being is geared toward evangelizing your product and services. So someone will always feel left out. But talking solely about your product just doesn't work.'

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How to Use Humor in Advertising: When Humor Works

Comedy can be the great differentiator for any product, notes Washer. So when Cisco was releasing their new ASR 9000 in 2009, Washer helped to create a sketch around how many ways a man can show his wife he loves her, with the purchase of a new router was the humorous conclusion. 180,000 YouTube views, a New York Times blog mention and later detailed in David Meerman Scott's best-selling book The New Rules of Marketing and PR, the executives at Cisco began to see the value of Washer's overall belief in terms of humor in advertising.

'Humor, when executed properly, helps cut through the noise and helps you stand out,' Washer notes. 'If you can make someone laugh, there is an emotional connection with them. And anything you say beyond that is going to be more meaningful.'

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How to Use Humor in Advertising: When Humor Doesn't Work

Identifying examples of advertising where humor was employed but failed could be a story in itself, but there are plenty of recent examples of poorly executed campaigns that teach just as much about doing it right as they do things to avoid. 

'There are two big mistakes that you often see in the campaigns that fail,' Washer says. 'The first, and easily the biggest, is trying to include too much product messaging. As soon as you start doing that, you lose the audience. It's important to fight the urge to burden a comedy with product information. The second mistake I see is companies that simply are not willing to take a risk by being a little bit edgy. If you are safe, your results will be average. But it's when you take a chance that something can become really big.'

Among recent failed campaigns, industry analysts point to the 2009 Super Bowl advertisement by Sobe beverages as an example of when humor doesn't work as intended. In the 'Lizard Lake' campaign, the brand employed three NFL players, CGI (computer-generated imagery) lizards and monsters and had them dancing in a mockery of the old and famous ballet Swan Lake. There were many reasons the campaign was not received well: too much CGI and computer enhancement, football players turned ballet dancers, lizards turned football players, the inherent promotion of a new movie (Monsters vs. Aliens) and too much product promotion throughout.

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How to Use Humor in Advertising: How To Add the Humor

While it's a great idea to attempt comedy, actually pulling it off can be very tricky for many. Let's face it: we all think we are hilarious, but few are actually talented enough at writing and producing content that appeals to mass audiences. And as a small- or mid-sized organization, it's unlikely you'll have a Madison Avenue advertising agency with access to a major budget and top-tier comedic talent to tap into. But that doesn't mean you can't find talented writers and producers to help you.

Assuming you don't have in-house talent to work on these campaigns, Washer recommends you begin by visiting a local film school and talking to some of the professors (IMDB Directory of Film Schools). Find out who some of the top seniors are, as almost every school will have someone with a great comedic voice and vision. Even better for small businesses, since they aren't yet established professionally and rather are looking to add to their reel and resume, you can acquire them much cheaper.

Another option for those in urban areas is to visit a local improv comedy theatre (it's important not to go to a stand-up performance) and see who controls the crowd best. As Washer says, those venues tend to attract 'more cerebral types of comedy writers who aren't going for a cheap laugh but understand comedy that comes from character and situation.'

'The great thing for smaller companies is that with humor, you can compete with the goliaths,' Washer adds. 'The more nimble your company is and the more willing you are to take a risk, even with a smaller budget, it can be the difference-maker. Because as consumers, they don't care how big your company is or what your budget was. If it's funny and good, that's what matters.'

Another point to consider when using humor in advertising is that different things are funny to different people. A commercial that may leave one person keeled over from laughter may leave a bad taste in another's mouth. The target market must always be considered, and running test and focus groups to receive feedback is always a great idea. Sometimes the portion of the commercial you thought was the funniest may get no laughs, while a scene you never expected to be a hit can be the most popular part. 

It's important with every advertising campaign to set measurable and realistic expectations. It's no different with an ad that includes humor, even if it's being used only digitally on your company blog or via YouTube. The key is to meet with management ahead of time and set goals that satisfy all involved parties. One of the major keys to a successful humorous campaign is variety, as once a campaign starts to wear out there's no saving it without some variation on the concept. Washer notes that it's important with humorous campaigns to let it run its course. You're going to have people who love it and others who hate it, and then even more that just don't get it at all. But if it's done well enough (and is funny enough), the growth can happen very naturally, particularly on social networks.

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How to Use Humor in Advertising: Utilizing Humor in Social Media 

The time has never been better for brands to employ social media when launching a new advertising campaign, particularly one with humor. The main reason for this: social media (and namely YouTube) is largely looked at as an entertainment medium. People don't often turn to YouTube to garner product information, but they do go there to watch funny videos. When they find one that resonates with them, the likelihood that they'll click the share button to spread via their networks on Twitter and Facebook, email it to a friend or talk about it becomes even higher.

'As a small company, you can take the chance with a funny video and just post it on YouTube to see how it's received,' Washer notes. 'Sometimes it fails, but if it's done properly, it can be a chance for those companies to compete with much larger brands without spending much money.'

For Washer's latest Cisco campaign, geared around the company's scheduled announcement at January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), he was given little to work with in terms of content. Since they are teasing an announcement related to the way consumers view their televisions and consume entertainment, he couldn't really describe in detail what they were doing and there isn't even a product to feature. So he employed a humorous ad, creating an 'Obsolete TV Support Group' where older TV's talk about how they feel useless with many of the new technologies now available. As one of the TV's says: 'With DVRs, on-demand, pods and pads — it's overwhelming. I feel left out!' Posted on December 3, it already has nearly 10,000 views, pretty amazing for an ad that doesn't even promote a product. It's just another example of how using humor in advertising correctly can help your brand.

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