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
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.)