How we can end the unfunny in advertising
A view from Joe Wade

How we can end the unfunny in advertising

There are massive opportunities to be funny in advertising, explains the MD and co-founder of Don't Panic.

Last week Paul Burke rightly pointed out the lack of humour in advertising. How did it happen?

Old ads seemed to know how to pull off humour. Children who went to school in the 80s will remember laughing at the Carling Black Label ads and then going to buy it once they nearly reached drinking age, despite the fact that it tasted like piss.

Even with a sub-par product, humorous and memorable advertising can lend market clout to a brand beyond its merits.

Burke was bang on with his assertions on who is to blame. But what needs to happen to kill the ‘John Lewis effect’ (which McDonald's got so wrong recently) that has every client grasping for weep-inducing creative, like depressed sheep?

To quote Burke, "If an ad’s purpose is to warn against smoking, stabbing or speeding, then drama can be very powerful. But for the majority of messages, comedy is a far better and more popular device."

Nobody questions a brand’s right to be funny, but why aren’t we championing humour?

First, we need to educate ourselves. To be funny, you’ve got to take some risks. Boundaries need to be pushed, possibly upsetting people in the process, if ‘funny’ is going to be achieved. This is the nature of humour. Parody only works if it offends someone to some degree. Imagine if Saturday Night Live told Alec Baldwin he couldn’t play Donald Trump, in case it upset him?

The Daily Mail isn’t as scary as you think – brands shouldn’t be afraid of criticism. They can even use the polarised public for their own benefit.

For example, we made Real Housewives of Isis, a controversial skit from BBC 2 series Revolting (which I co-wrote). It made national headlines and two petitions against the Isis sketch on and 38 degrees were launched. We had no advertising budget but heaps of publicity.

It has since become the BBC's eighth most shared clip ever.  

Forget what you believed about what makes something shareable: humour is more likely to go viral than highly emotive adverts that make you want to weep.

I don’t know where this rumour came from, but it’s making us forget actual online behaviour.

Some of the biggest Facebook publishers are like The Lad Bible and UniLad – I think in September last year they had about three billion views combined – and most of that is humour. So there’s definitely an appetite for it there. You might feel safer on more emotive ground (unless you’re using bereavement to sell burgers), but that’s far less effective.

To get the comedic material right though, you need the right people in the room. I am also a TV Bafta winning comedy creator and writer for satirical sketch shows such as the BBC Revolting series. This gives Don't Panic access to a brilliant pool of TV comedy writers who are ready, willing and able to work for brands. This ensures material is genuinely funny.

Fortunately for us, TV work is famously inconsistent so TV writers are often between jobs. TV writers are used to coming up with ten ideas in an hour. The difference manifests itself in the process.

Under the supervision of a creative director, these funny first ideas will have brand injected into them. Somebody who comes from a TV comedy background will tend to think "is this a funny set-up or scenario?" and then somebody else might have to come along and go "where’s the brand?" You can do it that way round. That will probably result in something funnier.

That’s not necessarily new. There has been a bit of fluidity between those who have written commissioned content versus ads, or famously people like novelists who have written for Hollywood.

But advertising too often starts with "what can we do to make this deliver against brand objectives?" then "can we make it funny?". That’s not how you achieve humour.

Think self-effacing. It’s disarming and very effective. The original ads for the Volkswagen Beetle constantly mocked the car for its small size. The ad campaign was a smash success.

Similarly, Skoda ads have played on their bad reputation with people seeing a new Skoda and refusing to believe that such a great car could be made by such an awful company. The tagline is "It's a Skoda. Honest." The ads were credited with transforming the reputation of the brand.

Think global but roll out local. Humour also needs to be localised for it to be really successful. Because humour relates to belief systems, and belief systems themselves are largely determined by geographies.

It can be done: Apple had a simple global concept that they localised in the Mac vs PC ads.

Let’s put a stop to unfunny and overly emotional ads and turn our attention to humour; there are massive opportunities to be funny in advertising. It’s time to make people laugh again.

Joe Wade is managing director and co-founder of Don't Panic