‘Being funny is hard’: Creatives share secrets to nailing the witty brief

Ashley Regan
By Ashley Regan | 7 May 2024
Kendall Jenner 2022 Halloween costume. Screenshot via ideservecouture TikTok.

(The second instalment of a two part series)

A strong client-agency relationship and relevance to brand is essential to navigating the subjective nature of humour, according to Australian creatives.

Humour in advertising is on the rise with Aldi’s “Shop ALDI First” positioning, Uber Eats “Get Almost Almost Anything” and Specsavers long standing “Should’ve gone to Specsavers”

But societal sensitivities, where everyone is terrified of offending people, makes being funny tough even at a pub.

Now try being funny when you only have 30 seconds, you're in a global culture war, you’re representing a company worth millions of dollars, and you don’t want to offend anyone for fear of outrage.  

Is it harder to be funny? Is it harder to be outrageous? You better believe it, Thinkerbell founder and consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier told AdNews

“I take my hat off to any comedian who can poke fun at the world, and not just talk about themselves, and I take my hat / hate off to every single piece of funny or outrageous piece of advertising that gets made in this increasingly risk adverse, outrage laden culture,” Ferrier said.

“What’s also difficult is the insidious, almost Orwellian impact that what I’ll loosely describe as the culture wars are having on our society.

“Everyone is so keen to prove that their point of view is right, and so quick to be outraged that it has created a culture of fear and intimidation that makes even a joke feel like a threat.

"It’s nuts (I just had a quick check with myself if I could say nuts then - can I?).” 

So what’s the key to nailing the witty brief?

Aldi, Uber and Specsavers are all completely rational in their strategy and hilarious in their execution, says DDB senior creative Steph Allen. 

“The trick is making sure the majority of your audience will find it funny and that it is the right kind of funny for the brand,” Allen said.

“What is funny to one person can be completely cringe to another. My best tip is therefore knowing which humour will not only work for your client but also their target market.

“And this starts with knowing the many different types of humour and understanding how each evokes their own unique emotions.” 

Slapstick or physical humour normally involves pranks and gags and depending on the brand may or may not be the right tone of voice. 

On the opposite end of the scale is witty or dry humour which is often deadpan and emotionless to arouse amusement. 

Self-deprecating humour can be a great way to demonstrate a brand’s self-awareness (think VW ‘Lemon’).  

Surreal or absurd humour is a brilliant tool for audiences who crave escapism and can be used to transport people or transform the spaces they’re in, in the real world.

Then there’s wordplay humour with puns and plays on words, observational humour in which we relate to as it’s part of our lives, topical humour that taps into cultural moments (think Uber Eats Kendall Jenner cucumber cutting spot), dark humour which may make brands a little nervous and potty humour which appeals to an even smaller demographic.

On the other hand, trying to not be funny and basing the idea on truth is group creative director at Akcelo Louise McQuat best tip.

“Don’t try to be funny. Don’t try to write jokes. Try to be real instead. Relatable is funny,” McQuat said.

“I find advertising that has the best cut through are the ones that hit you with an unexpected truth, or execution that breaks the stereotype. And often that insight becomes a punchline with the right execution.

“Finally, the most important gauge of funny work: if you’re laughing, it’s funny.” 

uber eats get almost almost anything - Kendall billboard jan 2023

Humour is subjective but so is your agency relationship

Comedy is always a leap of faith but partnering with the right people can help steer an idea to the grassy bit, not the snake pit, says BMF co-ECD David Fraser.

“The first obstacle can be the brief. If client and agency haven’t landed on something simple and true with a bit of tension, it’ll be hard to make it compelling and funny,” Fraser said.

“You can’t put mascara on a mongoose. Trying to be all things to all people is also a dead end. Humour is so subjective, and you have to accept you can’t please everyone. 

“Investing in great directors and giving them room to bring their magic. Giving creative teams time to play and sweat every detail. 

“And fostering an open, honest, long-term client-agency relationship is crucial to allow for the necessary conversations to make the work better at every step.” 

While humour is subjective, your brand's tone of voice isn't, says Georgie Parchert, Innocean Copywriter.

“If the idea is strong and you’re anchoring your jokes in their tone, it should come naturally. Plus, nothing kills a joke like the pressure to write something really funny,” Parchert said.

For example, for Parchert’s recent campaign, ‘Kia’s GETTING A UTE’, the team knew they didn’t want laugh-out-loud funny because the brand’s tone is more understated. 

Plus, we wanted to leave the audience with something to figure out. That meant writing jokes for the layman – and the superfans – filled with hidden meanings and a mix of sporting references, from the incredibly niche to the incredibly well known,” Parchert said.

“We also had to be prepared to rewrite lines when something wasn’t working as hard on camera as it was on paper. Which is often the case.”

Doing something funny is just like any great piece of work, you need trust between clients and agency to keep the idea as sharp and crafted as possible, says Howatson+Co executive creative director Richard Shaw.

“And importantly to keep hold of the feeling they first had when they heard the script. How they laughed and how it made them love their brand,” Shaw said.

“From round one presentation to air is a long road. Through production we talk about the same joke hundreds of times. 

“Looking at the same words on a page over and over and forgetting the public haven’t seen it yet, a joke can seem like a luxury in favour of saying something like ‘99% fat free’.

“But you need to have honest conversations and remember if no one is paying attention because your ads dull, no one hears the ‘99% fat free’ message. And the audience is looking at us like Tay Tay looked at poor old Jo Koy.”

Tips from the Specsavers agency relationship

Despite the brand’s unsexxy nature as an optical retail chain, Specsavers holds one of the longest running humorous campaigns.

Living up to the ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’  20+ year joke is daunting for the ANZ brand’s newest creative agency TBWA.

It’s such a well-known and well-loved platform, with hundreds of brilliant ads to live up to, says Paul Reardon, TBWA\Melbourne & Adelaide chief creative officer.

“Current trends (good and bad); social observations; advertising that’s self-aware and not trying too hard, are good ways to keep classic Specsavers sight-gags fresh,” Reardon said.

“You also need to have a very good understanding of the great Specsavers work that’s come before you. It’ll keep you and the wider team on track to be brave, at times provocative, and single minded in your message.”

Specsavers OOH

Shaun Briggs director of marketing planning ANZ told AdNews the reason why the brand has been so consistent for so long is the same answer as why it’s important for the brand. 

"Quite simply, it works for both long and short term measures,” Briggs said.

“It’s built on a universal human truth, it’s rooted in the main category entry point, we own it through humorous advertising that pretty much everyone knows and likes.

“And it’s easy to repeat and keep fresh because each Should’ve is a simple and relatable everyday moment that emerges naturally from the culture around us.”

“For any brand hoping to use humour the vital ingredient is relevance to the brand, category and consumer. 

“Unrelated humour might get a laugh, but will it build to anything bigger? Getting your humour right is the difference between witty and weird.”

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