Why Humor Isn’t Always Funny in Advertising

Author: Steve Sturges
Posted: Mar 2, 2015

My parents used to love Bob Hope. Thought he was the funniest man alive. Full confession - I never thought he was funny. On the other hand, I love Steve Martin, Monty Python and Jim Gaffigan. While my kids think all of them are relatively amusing, they prefer more outrageous, sometimes shocking, humor.


 “Fail” online videos are more their taste. Bold, sometimes irreverent, in-your-face jokes. But that’s how it goes with humor. What tickles one person might have another scratching their head.

Here are the facts: more than half the ads on TV use humor as the emotional vehicle to sell their products. Not surprising. Humor can be an effective method to increase memorability – or the sticky factor – of a product or brand message. The dilemma is, humor is highly subjective. Its form and affect changes by generation, culture, sex and race. And, oh yeah, by industry and brand as well. What works for GoDaddy probably wouldn’t work for McDonalds. Humor is a very tricky animal.

In some cases, humor isn’t appropriate at all. In fact, some industries and brands avoid humor altogether. How do you make a funny ad for a new diabetes center? How can humor help push donations for world hunger relief? Or for an advocacy message like “don’t text and drive”, how can humor even be considered? Serious messages like these – the ones where lives may literally hang in the balance, they’re a tough sell for humor. Not that agencies haven’t tried. But, more often than not, inappropriate use of humor comes across as offensive, callous and uncaring. It can do a brand more damage than good.

We live in a sensitive world. And while some believe we are beyond the PC-centric mindset that permeated society just a few years ago, it’s still wise for brands to be aware of certain boundaries.

As a writer, I love the fact that humor is part of my arsenal. I’m also keenly aware of its place. Used appropriately, humor can be a very effective tool for brands. Like most things in our modern marketing world, humor isn’t always a sure-thing.

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