It’s funny how some ads work

Does humor make advertising effective, or just funny?

National Post, July 22, 2002 

People in advertising take their work very seriously. Their clients, even more so. But that’s the last thing they want consumers to do.

‍     “Look at any awards reel from any advertising show: 95 percent of the work is funny,” says Nancy Vonk, a co-creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto.

‍     “Funny always wins. And as watching commercials becomes more of an elective decision, we’d better be doing work that people want to watch.”

‍     Ms. Vonk’s service on juries at this year’s Cannes International Advertising Festival reinforced the stubborn persistence of that truism.

‍     The Bud Light campaign that David Chiavegato and Rich Price Jones did when they worked at Palmer Jarvis DDB won Gold and Silver Lions at Cannes.

“If you ask around in the ad community, everyone will tell you that’s the funniest work in Canada right now,” she says.

‍     Does that mean the funniest people are working in advertising, while folks fighting flop-sweat and hecklers in comedy clubs aren’t quite funny enough to make commercials?

‍     Not exactly — most comedians need advertising work to make a living; advertisers need comedians to bring their ideas to life. And they understand each other; there are plenty of parallels between making people laugh about your product in their living rooms and making them laugh about airline peanuts — or TV commercials — in a club with a two-drink minimum. If dying is easy and comedy is hard, where does that put making funny advertising?

‍     “It’s like telling a joke,” Ms. Vonk says. “The right person telling a joke is absolutely hilarious. The wrong person telling a joke falls flat.”

‍     David Chiavegato, one half of the Bud Light creative team, says, “A lot of humor is based on truth, so it’s an easier way to connect than getting overly serious or dramatic about a product.” Mr. Chiavegato, now partner-creative at Grip Limited, says, “It’s easier to make people laugh in 30 seconds than it is in half an hour. At least that’s what my wife tells me.”

‍     But even though funny wins — and sells — there are caveats.

‍     “Funny for its own sake is pointless,” says Hugh Ruthven, executive vice-president at Vancouver’s Palmer Jarvis DDB, the shop that did the Bud Light spots, and one that keeps making funny commercials and winning awards for them.

‍     “Humor that tries too hard to be funny is never funny. Ads that are funny just for the sake of being funny are not in the best interest of the client. Clients buy funny work that’s on strategy. And it’s got to be smart and respectful.”

‍     Convincing the client is often the toughest part. “I worked on the client side,” Mr. Chiavegato says.

‍     “There is a tendency to overvalue your product. You begin to think mouthwash is very serious and on everyone’s mind. You want it to be treated very seriously.”

‍     But consumers don’t. They want your product to solve a problem. Make that point, make them laugh, and you’ve probably made a sale.

‍     Once the client’s convinced, execution is the next challenge. What’s funny through script and storyboard has to stay funny through production, and, ideally, improve.

‍     That’s where people like David Huband come in.

‍     Canadians have watched Mr. Huband in 20 years’ worth of commercials — most recently as a late-night recycling box scavenger seeking Cheez Whiz, and as a parent disappointed his daughter didn’t shop around for the best price on piercing in an insurance spot.

‍     “People always think I have something on the air, even when I don’t,” Mr. Huband says. He attributes his popularity with casting directors to being “non-threatening. I represent a certain demographic that appeals to people, and I’ve got a rubbery face.”

‍     But he also knows what’s funny, and knows how to make sure what’s funny on paper is funny on screen. “I know comic timing. Making commercials is more technical than improvisation — it’s not as straightforward as doing a pratfall.”

‍     And commercials are only part of what he does, which includes writing and producing short films, as well as acting on stage and in productions that aren’t commercials.

‍     Similarly, people who make funny advertising have to know advertising first and comedy second.

‍     “You can’t just plant a comedian in your midst and hope they’ll figure out how to do advertising,” Ms. Vonk says. In both instances, Mr. Chiavegato says, “funny is funny and can’t be taught, although I read that in a book about how to be funny.”

Getting serious about humor

Nobody doubts the effectiveness of humor in advertising. Now, studies at McGill University prove it scientifically.

     The McGill Management Faculty’s Dr. Ashesh Mukherjee wondered why scary and repellent attempts to get people to stop smoking didn’t work. He thought being funny, perversely, might get people to take the threat of disease more seriously. “I came up with a fictitious sunscreen lotion called Sail, and advertised it four different ways: using frightening photographs of skin cancer victims, using a cartoon that was mildly amusing, and using a cartoon that was really funny. The really funny cartoon was overwhelmingly more effective.”

     The study — the third in a series — proves what Dr. Mukherjee and colleague Laurette Dube initially surmised.

     “We’re hard-wired, physiologically and preconsciously, to recoil from threats — like photographs of skin cancer or blackened lungs,” Dr. Mukherjee explains. “But humor acts like a Trojan horse, getting the threat past that initial response so we can assess it and protect ourselves”

     Dr. Mukherjee’s thesis was borne out in later tests.

     He told subjects that Sail sunscreen was a real product being test-marketed, then passed out samples.

     People who had seen the ads featuring skin cancer hardly used any; people who had seen the cartoons used lots. Confounding what common sense would tell you to expect, humor is needed most keenly by the most serious subjects. And Dr. Mukherjee wants to test that thesis further.

     “Next, I’d like to try this with condoms and television advertising — a serious condom commercial, a not-so-serious condom commercial and a funny condom commercial, and see which one is most effective.”

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