By Katrina Olson
This article originally appeared 5/4/2015 as an Exclusive Feature on tedmag.com.
Comedy is hard. Even the best comedians sometimes fall flat on their faces. And sometimes even the most seemingly innocuous jokes or stories offend someone. That’s why it’s best to leave humor to the professionals. However, when done well, humor can build a strong bond with your audience.
What is not funny?
Before we look at what is funny, let’s look at what’s not funny. Humor at someone else’s expense is not universally funny. And it should go without saying that humor based on racism, bigotry, sexism, ageism, or homophobia is not appropriate or funny. Also, humor directed at members of a specific ethnic group or religion, or at people with disabilities is not funny.
But even big brands get it wrong. Here are a few examples:
Photo via Twitter user @DerClue
Last week, Anheuser-Busch admitted it “missed the mark” by printing this copy line on a bottle of Bud Light beer: “The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night.” The Twittersphere erupted with critics suggesting the line encouraged rape culture. Lesson: Consider all interpretations of a message before making it public. Read more about it here.
Popchips’ “World Wide Lovers Dating Service” commercial featured Ashton Kutcher in brownface as Bollywood producer and bachelor Raj. Read more about it here. Lesson: Caricatures of specific ethnic groups are not funny.
PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) “Save The Whales” billboard was not very ethical when referring to people. Read more about it here. Lesson: Body shaming is not funny.
This South Bend, Indiana billboard for Hacienda Mexican referenced the 1978 Jonestown cult massacre in which more than 900 people died after leader Jim Jones convinced them to drink cyanide-laced punch at the group’s compound in Guyana. Read more about it here. Lesson: Making light of mass murder-suicide is not funny.
And then there’s retailer Kmart, pushing the boundaries of good taste with their controversial TV commercials “Ship Your Pants,” “Big Gas Savings” and the holiday-themed “Show Your Joe.” Funny or not? You be the judge. (Watch videos below)
What is funny?
Of course, that depends largely on your sense of humor. But the safest and most accepted humor is that which doesn’t ridicule someone, and has universal appeal. Humor often delivers something that is unexpected, unusual or surprising.
Talking babies and animals are often funny. Of course, it depends on what they say.
Self-deprecation is often funny, especially ads or companies that make fun of themselves—like Geico’s “Unskippable” commercials.
Yes, humor is hard. But if you’re going to give it a try, here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Know your target audience. If others find it funny, that’s a bonus. Test your ideas and concepts on some of your target audience members before making it public.
2. Make it relevant to your audience, but be careful not to offend others. This ad for Absolut vodka was a big hit with its Mexican audience, but caused a stir when it started circulating in the U.S. Read more about it here.
3. Engage the reader immediately. You have only a few seconds to draw your reader or viewer in to your message. Whether it’s a print ad, Facebook post, tweet or video, your first few words or images must grab the audience so you can deliver your full message.
4. Make it relevant to your audience. Humor can make an ad more memorable, but linking it to your product or service will make it even more effective. Ideally, the humor should reinforce the benefit of the product or message of the commercial. And while it’s not nice to ridicule people, it’s okay to poke fun at other commercials—like this commercial for method cleaning products does.
5. Start with the normal and end with the unexpected or absurd—like the Geico “Unskippable” ads. The message starts with a common situation, and then takes the story in an extreme, exaggerated or ridiculous direction
Words of Caution
Just because it’s funny to you, doesn’t mean it will be funny to others. You may think the outtakes from your corporate training video or locally produced commercial are hysterical…but chances are they’re only funny to you and maybe your spouse or employees.
Also, while physical humor is great fodder for shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos, YouTube and sitcoms, it grows old quickly in a commercial that plays repeatedly.
Mark Twain said, “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” If you create something that’s so funny it makes both your seven-year-old son and your 89-year-old grandmother laugh, you’re onto something.
But E.B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Touché, Mr. White. Touché.
Olson is a veteran marketing and public relations consultant. She has written for tED magazine’s print edition since 2005, judged tED magazine’s Best of the Best Competition since 2006, and emceed the Best of the Best Awards ceremony for a total of seven years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.