OPINION: The effectiveness of funny ads depends on the brand

Why do funny ads work for beer brands but not for, say, cleaning goods? Winston Fletcher revises his view of the truism that wit is a panacea for a weak campaign

Why do funny ads work for beer brands but not for, say, cleaning goods?

Winston Fletcher revises his view of the truism that wit is a panacea

for a weak campaign

Do humorous ads really sell? This has been a contentious subject since

the dawn of time, maybe earlier.

When I started in the business the conventional wisdom was that humour

in ads was a no-no. ‘Spending money is a serious business and people do

not buy from clowns,’ was the dogma, and it was passionately espoused

(though not originated) by David Ogilvy, whose creative reputation at

that time was unassailable as he had invented the man in the Hathaway

eye-patch and built one of the largest agencies in the world faster than

you can say Wire and Plastic Products.

It always seemed silly dogma to me. Guinness, in particular, has been

using humour with great success since the 20s. And you’ll find witty

cartoons in any collection of Victorian ads.

I refuted the Ogilvy dictum by pointing out that the only reason people

don’t buy from clowns is that clowns don’t generally sell things. In

fact, I once bought a balloon from a clown at a circus and he handled

the transaction with consummate efficiency. My argument was not, it must

be admitted, widely accepted.

As a loose generalisation, clients are suspicious of humorous ads,

whereas agencies think they’re spiffing. Clients worry that they are

self-indulgent, and that the humour may obfuscate the sales message;

agencies think they make the sales message more memorable.

Now I like a larf as much as the next punter, so I was all on the side

of the funny men until the late 80s when I began to worry that the urge

to produce humorous ads was suffocating British advertising. The

research techniques we use - particularly focus-group discussions -

greatly favour humorous ads, creative awards favour humorous ads, our

families (in their role as expert critics) favour humorous ads. Every

night on the box I saw terribly witty ads, especially for lagers, which

made me hoot but which lacked any reason to buy the product.

At that time, ad expenditures were plummeting - well ahead of the

widespread recession - and I feared that by turning advertising into

comedy we were strangling the goose that makes the checkouts go beep-


But I went too far. There can be no doubt humorous advertising often

works. Study the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards. The PG chimps,

Boddingtons, Alliance and Leicester, John Smith’s, Irn-Bru, Barclaycard,

Volkswagen and Croft Original - to mention but a handful - are all

recent case histories of sales success built by humorous, sometimes very

funny, advertising.

Does that mean humour can sell any brand? I think not. Most agency

people would disagree, but I don’t think it’s simply the clients who

cause the advertising for domestic cleaners to be so po-faced. And for

serious pharmaceuticals. And for toothpastes. Humour has been tried many

times in those and other markets, and not worked.

Why? Because, at the subconscious level, consumers think funny ads for

domestic cleaners mean the advertiser thinks domestic chores are a

laugh. They’re not. But beers are. So are lots of other products.

The fallacy in the old dogma is not that people don’t buy from clowns.

The fallacy is that ‘spending money is a serious business’. Sometimes it

is, sometimes it isn’t. In a moderately affluent society, we buy many of

the things simply for pleasure, enjoyment, fun. In most cases, humour is

spot on. But other products aren’t a bundle of laughs and advertisers

who imply they are do so at their peril.

So when people ask whether humour in advertising works, the

straightforward, unequivocal answer is: yes and no. Wouldn’t it be nice

to work in a simpler business? (No it wouldn’t.)

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