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Humour in advertising

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One of America’s most successful exports has been canned laughter. It’s the staple diet of the world’s sitcoms, home video shows, comedies, and is now even used in children’s shows.

I’m amazed it’s not used in TV commercials (other than ironically). After all, telling the audience at home when something is funny would be useful in many TVC scripts, who seem to think they’re being funny when they seriously aren’t.

There’s a thing I cal ad-funny. It’s when something is only funny to the ad people who made it.

It’s not “real funny,” because it’s really not funny. Perhaps real people have a higher funny bone threshold than ad people; how else can so many unfunny scripts be classified as comedy?

Why are there so many clichéd caricatures masquerading as wit? Goofy Voices and stupid expressions aren’t funny: they’re forced and fake.

Most radio commercials fall into this category. And many formula-driven TV spots too. It has given humour a bad name with some advertisers.

A client once accused me of using humour as a first resort. I lamely explained that creative teams don’t always set out to write a humorous idea, but rather, when you’re searching for the shortest, sharpest way to express a thoughts, the answer is often a compression of a couple of different notions. This synthesis is often surprising and elicits the humour of surprise.

Clive James, who once famously described the Californian Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as looking like a bunch of walnuts wrapped in a condom, said he wasn’t trying to be funny at the time.

He was simply trying to “describe properly,” to convey something in the least number of words.

Compression leads naturally to humour. And, happily, humour leads naturally to a smile. An example of how important smiles are comes from a Chinese hospital that recently reported a significant drop in the number of complaints, after ordering staff to how at least eight teeth while smiling at patients.

Humour is so powerful in advertising (when it really is funny) because it’s a bridge that links the brand and the consumer. Laughter, it’s been said, is the shortest distance between two people.

A smile is a meeting of minds. Now, that’s truly interactive advertising. A smile means your audience is literally and physically responding to the message (and by association, the advertiser behind it), and engaging with it in a positive way.

Wit invites participation. Humour makes an ad more likely to be repeated by word of mouth.

Even better, it makes people feel more comfortable talking about and recommending the brand because, in a very real way, they’ve taken part in a little of the brand experience.

Humour also adds fame and topicality to the brand when people say, “Did you see that ad where…”

Humour is the point where your brand’s personality is at it’s most human, touching a facet of your audience’s personality and tickling their fancy as well.

More than any other sales tool, humour invokes a special kind of collective intimacy. In brief, it’s a shortcut to being a likeable brand.

The problem is that advertising is not always very good at it. Many clients would like to produce funny ads, but business today is serious.

Jokes are hard to justify in rationale-driven meetings. If you’re going to go funny with your campaign, you better make sure it’s a real giggle on the cold, pale page, even when the account executive reads it out aloud.

Different countries, like people, find different things funny, which is why national or even parochial campaigns are usually better a humour than global campaigns.

An interesting aside, here, is the example of Australian beer advertising. Australians are widely known to like a laugh and love a beer or two.

Yet, for decades, much Aussie beer advertising was turgid, try-hard, and stubbornly unfunny. It took an Englishman to show the way.

M&C Saatchi founding partner, James Laowther’s UK campaigns for Australian brands like Foster’s and XXXX used the classic drollery of he Aussie personality to hugely successful, and humorous, effect.

Claud Hopkins once said, “People don’t buy from clowns.” At that point the clouds opened, a deep vibrant voice spake “Wrong, claud Love,” and deposited several thousand tons of Volkswagens, crates of John Smiths, Foster’s, Stella Artois, Budweiser, Tango, a BA jumbo jet and a whole lot of drunk patrons of club 18-30 to mention but a few upon his distinguished pate.

If he had survived the incident, Claude would undoubtedly have revised his opinion.
Humour, not only wins most of the awards at most festivals, but also wins more business for clients than any other tool in the advertiser’s armoury.

Why? Because logic can make you think a product is a sensible choice. But only humour can make you like it.

Because only humour requires the actual participation of the viewer, so he/she is more likely to remember it.

And because fish swim, snakes bite, pandas eat bamboo, they all have sex… but only humans laugh.

Laughter is the common currency that humans use to make life seem better. Advertising is trying to persuade people that their products make life better. So the alliance of the two is a match made in heaven.

Speaking of heaven, that same voice spake unto me on the mountaintop – well, Golden Square actually – and did burn a few commandments about humour upon my Quark Express in letters of fire.

Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor – He’s Dead Funny
The best jokes and the bet ads aren’t based on imagination. They’re based on observation, observations of those funny creatures all around us … people.

If we want to get our products into people’s lives, we’d better know about them. So the first thing to do before you pick up a piece of paper is look at the world and the people around you. No, not the Groucho club … real people.

See how they speak, how they gesture, how they tell whoppers, how they kiss and fart and how they never look at each other in a lift.

That’s why they’ve never found Lord Lucan. He’s hiding in a lift. And how they use, talk about or behave with your product. And I’m not talking about research. I’m talking about you, the creative person, observing.

Handy hint: When you see anyone do something strange or funny, write it down. You can nick it and use it later.

Thou Shalt not Kill … but Wounding is Quite a Laugh
Neil Simon once said, “All humour is based on hostility. That’s why World War II is so funny.”

Other than the questionable conclusion, the observation is faultless. If we’re honest, there’s nothing that constitutes a greater source of pleasure than the weaknesses or misfortunes of others.

In advertising, it can be used to great effect to get people to remember your brand name. Who can forget the logo of out post.com after seeing live gerbils being fired through it?
It can be used to dramatise a product benefit.

In a Foster’s tactical ad, we used a crocodile decapitating a bungee jumper to demonstrate how our new hit pump stops the beer losing its head.
It can also be used to assail the weaknesses of your real or imagined rivals. Witness the magnificently painful foreign games lampooned by Fox TV.

And some time ago, I used it for Schweppes to parody other people’s advertising, with John Cleese as the assassin.

At the time Calvin Klein was leading a vogue for pretentious black and white ads with equally pretentious and meaningless dialogue.

Schweppes had a culture of dry and ironic ads. But we wanted it to be more modern. What better way to put yourself alongside but, at the same time, above modern icons but unmercifully and woundingly extracting the piss from it.

So we took the slightly meaningless … and turned it into total but very beautifully photographed bollocks.

Handy bit: When doing parody, you have to execute it as well as the original. And do it seriously. Just take it to absurd extremes.

Thou Shalt not Bear False Withness
Did you read right? Is this guy telling you to tell the TRUTH! Yes, you did. And yes I am.

At the beginning of these tablets, the man up there said the reason humour and advertising make such good stalemates is that the best examples of both are based on observation. In other words, they’re based on truth.

Many people outside our business and I suspect some inside, think advertising is about “creative lying.” But the best ads are actually based on truth.

They have to be, otherwise people will not believe them and will not buy the products. And that’s why good humour and good advertising so often go hand in hand. Here I must distinguish between “factual” and “truthful.”

The great America humorist PJ O’Rourke said “Humour is by its nature more truthful than factual.”

Humorous ads may exaggerate the facts, abuse or ignore them to get at the truth, but at the core of the idea is truth to which people can say, “Yes, it is like that.”

And funnily enough, the best example or agency has of this is an ad we did for BA with PJ himself.

Here he paints a picture of Britain as a dog – Obsessed, rain – soaked country, where we eat revolting curry and invent games that on one understands and then get beaten by the rest of the world at them, in other words, the truth … albeit somewhat selective & embellished:

When he sets this against the fact that we also have the world’s favorite airline, you will believe that too.

The only thing I reset is his assertion that we prefer tea to sex. But then, I drink coffee and have four kids.

Handy Hint: After writing your script, ask yourself if it’s funny up front. Then ask yourself if it’s true underneath. Well, a bit true.

Thou Shalt Commit Adulteration
According to the dictionary, adulteration is making something impure by adding foreign or incongruous substances to it. And that is exactly what comedy does.

PG Woodhouse said, “Comedy is the kindly contemplation of the incongruous.”
And Max Sennet put it even more revealingly, “humour is when an idea going in one direction meets an idea going in the opposite direction.”

So if you want to do a funny and revealing ad, try putting two wildly different things together. And the key here is what I call the “What if” question. 
With our Foster’s campaign, we asked, “what if” people of different nationalities drank Foster’s and started behaving like Australians?

So, we wrote the line: “He who drinks Australian, thinks Australian, and then we had a Frenchman treating a beautiful woman like a baggage handler, a German asking his kidnapped wife where she put the golf clubs and a Japanese robot in a threesome with a can of beer, a vacuum cleaner and a microwave oven.

In Australia, our guys asked “What if” you tried to find another way of saving as much money as you do with ANZ bank? We had a woman; blacking in the hole in her tights with magic marker.

In my late night imaginings, I wonder “what if” Romeo and Juliet were only able to conduct their love affair with text messages?

So I want to do a series of “The classics on text.” (“What if” you tried to nick this idea? I’d sue.)

Handy hint: Take your product and look at it not from the point of view of the client or even the agency.
Thou Shalt use Lots of Graven images .. Visual Gags Rule, ok
Back in the caves, before satire, parody, irony and pathos or any other words for that matter, had been invented, nothing would make your average Neanderthal giggle quite as much as a mate’s animal skin falling down while he was chasing a hairy mammoth or the like.

To complete his joy, the mate would then trip over his animal skin (they didn’t have banana skins in those days) and do himself severe damage.

The sight gag or visual humour is born. Thousands of years later, having invented language, philosophy the internal combustion engine, flight, television, quantum physic and those machines that serve tennis balls at you, humans still just adore sight gags.

Here are a couple of stories to illustrate how you can never underestimate the hilarity of a good old-fashioned pratt fall.

I have done a talk called “Laughing All the Way to the Bank: How Humour Sells” in three wildly different places.

California, shanaghai and South Africa. In them I would talk about different styles of humour, showing films that illustrate each style and then measuring the response from the audience with a “laughometer” … actually just a sound meter but hey, we all know how important the brand name is.

In the visual humour section, I would show the famous Hamlet phone booth ad, the Fox Sport “If only Golf was Hockey” ad and a Dutch ad for the football pools, which shows a man pretending to open a glass door for someone and laughing his rocks off when the guy nearly knocks himself out walking into the door. In Monterey, Shanghai and Johannesburg, these got the biggest laugh of the lot.

And here’s an example from my own experience. In our Calvin Klein spoof for Schweppes, much of the humour comes from the deadpan nonsensical dialogue, executed as only John Cleese can.

Cleese: “Why do we walk like one dancer in a dream?”
Woman; “Because, When I step on you shadow, it is I that feels the pain.” And so on ad nauseam.

The script called for the girl to slap John once, a la Calvin Klein. Paul Weiland then asked here to punch him in the solar plexus as an extra visual gag.

When we cut the film together, there was a lot of debate about whether the solar plexus punch was too obvious, oude and generally OTT.

So we tested two versions of the film, one with the punch, one without.
Not only did the “With punch” version win, but the punch was the precise moment in the film when silent amusement exploded into audible laughter.

The ad went on to win the ad of the year at the British Television awards.

Handy bin: Most of the time, aspire to do something witty, challenging and intelligent. But every so often, a crass, primitive punch in the goolies is well in order.

People Coveting Their Neighbor’s Ass Is Always Good For A Giggle
Someone once wrote, “Genitals are a great distraction to scholarship.” That may explain my rather feeble grades at university.

But on one would describe sex as a great distraction to selling. As everyone knows, sex is, in an unfortunate expression once used to me, “a powerful tool for the adman.”

But here, I’m not talking about the sex that stirs up the hormones, but sex that tickles that other born – the funny bone, for, the fact is that sex is as likely to raise a snigger as anything else.

In the18th century, Lord Chesterton said of sex; “The pleasure is momentary, the poisons ridiculous, the expense damnable.”

The old dodger had a point, and even today, you can sell people onto something by paling on that shared recognition that sex can not only be magnificent fun, but magnificently funny.

Who can forget, the magnificent Braathens Airline ad advertising their half-price fares for in-laws, where the randy husband kicks off his pants, grips a rose in his teeth and bursts into the room to offer his wife a good seeing to only to confront the father and mother-in law in mid-sip of their earl Grey?

I myself broached the subject of potential homosexual fellatio in my Mafia Foster’s ad, “Kiss.”

And guys laughed. Except the ones with moustaches. Handy hint: Observe the absurdity and humour of sex. But, unless you’re prepared to risk embarrassing physical damage, don’t tell your partner you’re doing it.

Thou Shalt Keep Thy Gag Unto Thyself Until The End
Charlie Chaplin’s definition of the best gag is:

Banana skin on pavement
Man walking towards banana skin
Man about to step on banana skin
Man sees banana skin at last moment
Man steps around the banana skin with a self-satisfied smile
And falls down manhole.

You think it’s over. Kerbang! Something else happens. Surprise. And the same goes for ads. Build up a situation piece by piece towards the anticipated ending.

Then, at the last minute, turn the whole contraption on its head and whip the carpet from under it.

This is particularly useful, when you are trying to dramatise a product benefit by comparing it to something precisely the opposite.

Our Australian agency provided one of the best examples of yanking the Axminster, with their client Berri orange juce, who tells us: “The goodness in the glass.”

In one, lovely granny is trying to tie her shoelaces. Adorable grandson, with an expression to melt the heart of Martin Boorman, kneels down to do it for her.

He gives her a big hug and we close on the face of grandma, touched almost to tears. We pan down to her feet to see the little bastard has tied her shoelaces together.

In another one, a proud dad watches his little angel mowing the lawn. After a suitably vitamin enriching swig of his Berri orange juice, the kid struggles on manfully, until he has completed his task of mowing the word “Shit” into the sward.

The little s**t could have mowed Berri’s sales increase chart into the lawn … but that would have needed a bigger lawn.

Handy hint 1: The best way to conceal your intentions is to make the front very charming or emotional and execute it as seriously as if that were the whole story. The bigger the contrast with the end, the bigger the drop, the funnier the ad.

Handy hint 2: Surprise can hurt. When once talking on humour in Monterey, I decided to give a personal demonstration of the Charlie Chaplin theory.

Before I mounted the stage, I placed a banana skin in plain view by the podium. In the absence of a manhole cover.

I decided that I would fall over my chair to make the point. I dully ascended the stage, walked past the banana skin with a self satisfied smile, fell over the chair and putted three tendons in my knee.

Thou Shalt Honour Thy Product
One of our clients once used to draw himself up to his full height when briefing us, and warn us in apocalyptic tones, that he didn’t want his scripts to be “one of those sponsored jokes.”

At the time, I found this all rather depressing. But now I know precisely what he had meant.

To tell a joke in 30 seconds and then sticky tape a product on the end is a crappy ad.
If it’s a brilliant joke, but it is just and appendage to make the ad more watchable, it’s still a crappy ad.

The best ads and funniest ads happen when the joke comes from the product and actually could not exist without the product.

The XXXX ads would not be funny, unless they were demonstrating our line that “Australians wouldn’t give a XXXX for anything else.”

The antics of Danny Kleinman’s great bear-fighting salmon fisherman are made not only relevant but funnier by the fact that they are demonstrating the lengths to which John West would go to get the best salmo.

And of course the most direct product humour can be extracted from the physical product itself.

In our Rentlo ad, an exasperated wife tries to stir her couch potato husband from gawping at the telly by throwing the sets out of the window … only to be frustrated by Rentlo’s wide screen.

Handy hint: Try reading your hysterically funny script, without mentioning the product. If it works, it’s not a good ad.

Execution is God                                                                                     
How many times have you watched the first cut of your comic masterpiece, to be greeted not with a belly laugh but a belly contraction? Oh God, it’s not funny!

Or even worse, it merits that famous top out for all failed comedy: “It’s not so much a belly laugh. It’s more of a wry smile.”

There are only two possible contusions that can be drawn her. Either the script wasn’t as funny as you thought it was or it’s been badly done.

Here are a few tips from he who must be obeyed on how to avoid the latter. The first is get the right director.

It’s so obvious that it hardly seems worth saying … However, it’s amazing just how often people don’t.

And you have to understand one thing. Comedy is a particular talent and very few people have it.

It’s possible that a director, whose beautiful visual eye has accumulated more pencils than Leonardo’s art bag, could be incapable of extracting even a slight titter from a whoopee cushion full of laughing gas.

And the same goes for actors and actresses. If I were asked what is the single most important thing about filming comedy, I would say casting.

The set may be good, the lighting impeccable, and the special effects mind0boggling, but if the acting stinks, so will he commercial.

So don’t worry about how many casting sessions you have, keep going until you ABSOLUTELY KNOW you’ve got the right cast.

And by all means try and find someone who looks the part. But never choose an actor or actress just because they’ve got a good face.

I did that once and “Sir Lawrence Olivier,” as he unfortunate came to be known by the crew, took what we all thought was a funny script and turned it into something about as enjoyable as a fart in a space suit.

Remember, wardrobe and make-up can transform someone’s appearance … but not their talent. And here’s a few other hints.

Most funny lines are delivered straight … because the best jokes are usually in the eye of the beholder, or the protagonist … and there is nothing more annoying than someone who laughs at heir own jokes.

In only one XXX script did we wrongly let the hero smile as he delivered his last line … and it was so unfunny, we didn’t run it.

It’s also why the line that gets the biggest laugh on the set is not necessarily the one that is the funniest when you come to edit it.

Because of this, I also learnt something from one of our current geniuses of comedy directing, Danny Kleinman.

Always do the ending a few different ways. You think you know how it should be done but comedy, as they say, is a funny business and you never know 100%.

Oh, and on a comedy shoot, try not to trip over the cables. You’re meant to write the gags, not perform them.

Handy hint: When you’re handed your baby over to your chosen director, give him the space to do his job. But never forget that, when the shit hints the fan, it still is your baby.

Thou Shalt Keep it Dead Simple
At M&C Saatchi, our main principle is what we call the “Brutal Simplicity of Thought” because, while it’s easier to complicate than to simplify, simple thoughts enter the mind quicker and stay there longer. That’s why the very best and most effective advertising propositions are simple.

The best ads are, at their heart, simple. And so are the best jokes. Here’s an example from earlier in my writing career.

In the “Bridge” ad for XXX, we showed a Ute, driven by two outbackers being driven across a bridge. In the back was the wife and about four tons of XXXX.

The bridge collapsed and the wife and XXXX were left suspended over the dried up riverbed.

In the script, the wife says, “We’ll be all right if we lose some weight off the back” and one of the blokes turns to his mate and says “She’s not just a bloody good wife; she’s a darn good sport.”

As we were shooting the end, the light was disappearing rapidly and the chosen actor just could not deliver the line.

By now the DOP was actually having to stick brutes through the window to light the ongoing disaster, so we had to do something quickly.

In desperation we changed the actors round and I simplified the line to “She’s a good sport, your missus.” One deadpan delivery later and we had a commercial that was simply 100% funnier.

Handy hint: Keep paring the joke down to its simplest expression … to a stage just before it becomes incomprehensible.

Humour depends on people having to do a hit of work. But that work has to be rewarded.
So there we are.

The 10 immutable commandments of humour. But holy smoke! A thunderbolt has struck me in the lumbar regions.

A deep voice has emanated from the fastness of the clouds and spake unto me: “Not so fast, schmuck.

I feel another tablet coming on.” And a finger of fire has burnt the following into the stone at my feet.

Thou Shalt Disobey All The Commandments Above If That Makes It Funnier
“Thou worm” spake the voice. “If thou shalt do an ad that is not simple or surprising or based on truthful observation, sex, incongruity, visual humour or any of the above encomiums and it’s funny and relevant, thou shalt go with it.”

“But Lord,” I replied, “that’s breaking the rules. And anyhow, you can’t have 11 commandments.”

And he spake and said unto me, “I am the God of humour. I can do whatever I bloody well like for a giggle, sunshine.” And he turned me into a planner.
Keywords: humour, advertising, laughter, laugh, jokes, ads,


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