Humour in ads could fix advertising’s woes

Ashley Regan
By Ashley Regan | 6 May 2024
Tengyart via Unsplash

In part one of a two-part series, Ashley Regan explores the impact of humour in advertising. 

Humour in advertising could be the antidote to the dark clouds of client and consumer sentiment. 

After four years of pushing against economic headwinds, falling consumer spending and the depressing cloud of COVID years, creatives have turned to humour.

Globally, after two decades of decline, advertising humour is roaring back with 56% of British TV ads in 2023 having incorporated humour compared to 45% in 2022 and the first time Cannes Lions Awards has introduced a humour category.

While ​​locally humour in advertising hasn’t had such a dramatic rise, more clients are backing humour as a tone of voice according to Australian creatives.

There’s no doubt that Australians enjoy humour in advertising, it’s who we are, says Georgie Parchert, copywriter at Innocean.

“But a return feels like a stretch. Because I’m not convinced it ever left,” Parchert told AdNews.

“Brands and agencies have always had to walk the line between deciding which emotion they want consumers to feel versus the message they want to communicate. It’s a tricky balance, but when things feel particularly heavy - like they do right now - brands can and should be willing to deliver some levity.”

For creatives humour is one of the first tools they reach for and now clients are seemingly backing it more as the weak economy continues into the year.

“We’re now seeing better comedy commercials getting made, so we’re noticing them more. Especially here in Australia,” Howatson+Company executive creative director Richard Shaw said.

“The US, UK and Thailand have always had great comedies being produced. I now think we’re building on ‘Aussie comedy’ and we’re seeing more brands open to deadpan, satire and irony. Which is exciting.

“It’s also clear there are more clients backing humour as a tone of voice. Perhaps the science behind humour being an effective way to communicate has grown that confidence.

“And it’s great, from an agency, client and also a consumer perspective. We’ve all got busy lives and often shit going on, so why wouldn’t I want a brand to make me laugh?”

However, according to group creative director at Akcelo Louise McQuat 9 times out of 10, clients are still hesitant to choose the ‘funny’ idea, even if there is laughter in the room. 

“There is a lingering fear that funny is risky – too distracting, not on-brand, or leaving you open to negative comments/ accusations of ‘cringe’,” Louise said.

“Which is ironic, because the only kind of work that everyone seems to talk about right now is comedy. 

“With everything that’s going on in 2024, we want to be entertained. Advertising is entertainment. 

“And humour is the best way to be remembered – especially in an era where brands are moving towards brand experiences and trying to be part of culture, thus competing with literally every other piece of media in the world (or at least, everything on your phone). 

“In an era of shrinking budgets, we need to think beyond media to stand out, and comedy is a very cost effective way to cut through for brands. 

“A weird/ funny/ absurd ad, poster, activation etc. is more likely to be shared with friends and followers. Look at TikTok, where the lo-fi-est comedy content gets the highest engagement."

The Inspired Unemployed and Millie Ford TikTok ads.

TikTok creators The Inspired Unemployed and Millie Ford doing brand advertisements on their TikTok accounts.

TBWA\Melbourne and Adelaide chief creative officer Paul Reardon has also noticed a desire from creatives and planners to use more humour in ads over the past 12 months.

“It shouldn’t be this way, but I think we’ve reached a point where an ad that delivers one message — Note: ONE MESSAGE — and makes you laugh, is an anomaly,” Reardon said.

“So much so that for creatives and audience members, it now also comes with a sigh of relief. Kind of like ‘Ahhhh. Entertaining and simple. That’s all it needs to be. Thank you.’”

Similarly DDB senior creative Steph Allen said there is a constant hunger from creatives to make audiences feel, and if you can make them happy, laugh or even evoke a wry smile then that’s a huge win.

“Clients are definitely aware that ads which make viewers chuckle are naturally more enjoyable and a lot more likely to be shared,” Allen said.

“However, it is important that the brand is central to the joke, and not just tacked on the end, as you’ll end up with a funny ad, but no one will remember what it’s for.”

Forrester, the global marketing consultancy, predicts Australian marketers to take more risks in 2024 as media budgets stabilise and increase as 2024 progresses - humour is one of the best avenues for these risks.

Research from System1 indicates that the emotions driving the biggest business effects from advertising are amusement and schadenfreude. Oracle reveals that 91% of people prefer brands to be funny.

In a world where people pay to avoid advertising, smiles and laughs pay dividends says TRP head of strategy Kyle Ross.

“There are no shortcuts in strategy, no one size fits all, however for anyone in the business of brand building, humour is velcro for memories,” Ross said.

“It’s hard to think of a single category that hasn’t used humour to create highly effective work. We know humour works in unlikely categories, in uncertain times, in e-commerce, with creators.

“The more we feel, the more we buy. And we see that humour can work in every media channel.”

Kantar’s AdReaction study shows that humour is the most powerful creative enhancer of ad receptivity. It’s more distinctive, delivering an 11-point increase on their distinctiveness measurement. And it crosses generations.

“Humour mediates attention and improves memory. We know the ‘humour effect’ is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember information better when they perceive it as humorous,” Ross said.

“It’s time we stop taking ourselves so seriously and embrace humour more to drive brands forward."

This is certainly what Specsavers built its well-known attention grabbing brand platform ‘should have gone to Specsavers’.

The daily news cycle is depressing, consumer sentiment seems glued to 30-year lows and society feels emotionally exhausting, says Specsavers director of marketing planning ANZ Shaun Briggs.

“So, I’m not surprised people are responding well to brands producing light-hearted advertising that’s relevant. It’s not called comic relief for nothing,” Briggs said.

“Is humour back? I would say it never went away. 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.”

The best of Australian humour campaigns 

Thinkerbell founder and consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier told AdNews funny ads are doing the world a huge service.

“Personally I think weird ads from Aldi and attention getting stunts from brands not afraid to put a smile on peoples faces, are doing the world a huge service,” Ferrier said.

“They are poking fun and pushing boundaries and keeping the playing field of opinion and life experience broader for all of us.”

While BMF co-ECD David Fraser couldn’t remember any humorous ads from Australia that made ‘him swallow his false teeth’, many creatives highlighted how Aldi’s campaign genuinely made them laugh.

“Australians poke fun at themselves unlike any other country, so when Aldi was brave enough to take a weakness and celebrate it? Bravo, that’s Australian humour,” Parchert, Innocean Copywriter, said.

Another highlight of well-done humour campaigns is The Monkey’s work for Macpac.

“The writing was outstanding, and when you analyse it, it works incredibly hard from a product perspective, which adds to how smart that script is,” Richard Shaw said.

“It didn’t feel like it was designed by a committee of people pointing out all the things that could be wrong about it. It felt simple and pure. When I saw it, I smiled and had one of those little sighs of relief I mentioned earlier,” Paul Reardon said.

Outside of Australia Liquid Death provides an absolute masterclass for doing humorous ads right, says Kyle Ross.

“And the reason is simple. Humour is not just a creative strategy at Liquid Death, it’s part of their whole business operating system,” Ross said.

In Liquid Death’s words: “We’re just a funny beverage company who hates corporate marketing as much as you do. Our evil mission is to make people laugh and get more of them to drink more healthy beverages more often, all while helping to kill plastic pollution.”

“It’s not just a refreshing business strategy, it's paying off. In 3 years sales of Liquid Death jumped from $3M in 2019 to $103M in 2022. Humour is no joke,” Ross said.

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