Many of the most memorable ad campaigns around tend to be funny. Advertisers use this strategy to attract customers to their product. Audiences like to be entertained, but not pitched. People will pay more attention to a humorous commercial than a factual or serious one, opening themselves up to be influenced. The key to funny advertising is assuring the humor is appropriate to both product and customer. The balance between funny and obnoxious can often be delicate; and a marketer must be certain the positive effects outweigh the negative before an advertisement can be introduced.
The best products to sell using humor tend to be those that consumers have to think the least about. Products that are relatively inexpensive, and often consumable, can be represented without providing a lot of facts, and that's where there's room for humor. Candy, food, alcohol, tobacco and toys/entertainment related products have proven to benefit the most from humor in their campaigns. One of the most important things to keep in mind is relevance to the product. An example of an extremely successful humorous campaign is the series of "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" commercials. The star, a tiny talking Chihuahua who is passionate about his Taco Bell got people repeating the company's name across the country. The repetition of the company name and the actual content of the commercial reinforce the message in a relevant manner. Taco Bell saw a substantial rise in sales and their own mascot became a pop icon.
Another point to consider when using humor in advertising is that different things are funny to different people. A commercial that may leave one person gripping their sides from laughter may leave a bad taste in another's mouth. The target market must always be considered. What's funny in a client presentation may not be funny on an airplane, at a country club or in a hospital. An example of a recent humorous product introduction is Mike's Hard Lemonade. These commercials feature over exaggerated and comical violence with the underlining message that no one's day is hard enough to pass up a Mike's. It failed, ranking as one of the year's most hated campaigns by both men and woman according to 2002's Ad Track, a consumer survey. The series of commercials are aimed at 21-29 year old males and the repetition of comical violence (such as a construction worker being impaled on the job and a lumberjack cutting off his own foot) gets less and less funny every time it's viewed. Eventually the joke just wore out and the commercial became annoying and offensive.
Humor in advertising tends to improve brand recognition, but does not improve product recall, message credibility, or buying intentions. In other words, consumers may be familiar with and have good feelings towards the product, but their purchasing decisions will probably not be affected. One of the major keys to a successful humorous campaign is variety, once a commercial starts to wear out there's no saving it without some variation on the concept. Humorous campaigns are often expensive because they have to be constantly changed. Advertisers must remember that while making the customer laugh, they have to keep things interesting, because old jokes die along with their products.
Mark Levit is managing partner of Partners & Levit Advertising and a professor of marketing at New York University. Partners & Levit's clients include Procter & Gamble, UnitedHealth Group, and GE Commercial Finance. For more information call 212-696-1200 or visit http://www.partnerslevit.com.