People who work in international advertising are forever pointing
out that humour doesn’t travel, yet advertising without humour is a
joyless thing. Almost the only thing which can earn us the punter’s
forgiveness for invading, yet again, their intellectual space, is
raising a bit of a smile.
This fact is often proved at Cannes, where the winning ads are almost
always the funny ones. Trouble is, the ads which don’t win are often
trying to be funny too, and doubtless had people rolling around in front
of their TV sets in Korea or Germany. So it’s not that humour doesn’t
travel: some does and some doesn’t.
It’s hard to see a pattern at Cannes: the jury persists in praising
bizarre Japanese ads featuring grunting cavemen being hurt by dinosaurs,
and sitcoms about a British woman humiliated by her mother in a
supermarket, and yet ignores the Italian campaign most Italians love,
where a famous comedian poses as a grocer, cracking jokes with his
female customers as he weighs the ham.
It’s easy enough to see why this kind of humour doesn’t travel: verbal
humour is local humour. These ads die in the translation, and unless you
know the comedian and find his Roman dialect funny, there’s not much
left to laugh at.
Yet the Japanese caveman has blundered into some truly common
Visual humour always travels best. Everyone loves the Norwegian airline
ad where a man bursts naked into his drawing room with a rose between
his teeth, only to find that his wife has flown her parents over. Mr
Bean is a truly global hit. Everyone in the world, it seems, is attuned
to the rich potential of the banana-skin.
Lewd innuendo works too: Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s Levi’s ads, for all
their glamour, are pure Benny Hill (another perennial international
Filth, too, often wins at Cannes, like the Argentinian ad for spicy tuna
sauce which brought the house down in 1995: a lingering shot of a pair
of male underpants on a washing line, with a ragged hole burned
eloquently through the rear.
Laughing at pain, embarrassment, sex and bodily functions: how childish
can you get? Culture - the stuff we learn as we grow up - prevents
audiences around the world from laughing at the same jokes. As education
takes away our innocence, our sense of humour becomes more intellectual,
more linguistic, more specific to our immediate cultural environment,
But forget this at your peril: children, like foreigners, aren’t
They’re just different.