Why So Serious? Using Humor in Marketing


If you think you have to be serious to be taken seriously–or to get people to do something–you’re wrong. Just ask Barack Obama. In the last few weeks before the sign-up deadline on HealthCare.gov, Obama was a guest on Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.” In the episode of the satirical interview show, Galifianakis pretends to be ignorant, rude, and oblivious and Obama pretends to not realize Zach isHumor Example: Obama "Between Two Ferns" playing a role–he dishes out several catty (and very unpresidential) insults right back at Zach. About halfway into the video, Obama finally gets a chance to plug what he came there for–to urge people (in this case, twenty-somethings) to sign up for coverage. But even as his message gets serious and he provides the practical information about how to sign up, the tone remains goofy enough to keep the target audience engaged. This is where it gets really compelling: the video’s release increased traffic to HealthCare.gov by a stunning 40% from the previous day.

Be Funny.

If the President can afford to participate in a little ridiculousness to get his point across, why do so many “business people” seem to see professionalism and humor as mutually exclusive? Assuming you’re as skillful about it as Obama in the example above (the right humor for the right audience at the right moment), you won’t lose credibility just by being momentarily silly. You can represent, market, and sell your brand without limiting yourself to only talking about your brand’s virtues. People don’t follow their favorite kind of paper towels on Twitter because they want to talk to a roll of paper towels, a roll relentless in reminding us of its absorbency properties. They do it because there’s actually engaging humanbeings to connect with on the other end–and people are drawn to each other not just for the information they can exchange, but for the company and the fun of being around each other. If creating an emotional connection can be part of a marketing strategy and and overall brand experience, why not comedy?

Don’t Be Not Funny.

Here’s another baffling thing: when people do use humor, why do they make “jokes” that no one, or at least not their target audience, would actually find funny? I’m thinking about the ubiquitous kind of tutorial that opens with a warning, “Get ready! It’s going to be a wild ride!” and is intended for people over the age of 10. Please try never to do this, unless it’s tongue-in-cheek, and if it is tongue-in-cheek, try to come up with something more original instead. Do research and try to find out what makes the people you’re trying to reach laugh. Read what they read and watch what they watch. Test out your funny content through social media and gauge how well it’s doing by how much people are interacting. Engage with people by asking questions–the kinds of questions their friends would ask.

Accept That Moms Won’t Get Jay-Z References.

Don’t have a foundation of blandly-written content and then try to fortify it with a sprinkling of jokes to seem more accessible. Be deliberate in the brand of humor you use, and keep in mind that even the most clever material could fall flat on the wrong audience. It could take a lot of restraint to not use a super-smart reference to a Jay-Z song, but if you’re trying to reach middle-aged moms, it’s restraint that you’ve got to have. You’re writing a joke to enhance and enliven the overall content; you’re not building content around a joke. Perhaps the latter could be inspiration for a whole new target audience and campaign, though. Maybe the Jay-Z song reference you wanted to use was for a cleaning product (“I’ve got 99 problems but a dirty apartment isn’t one”) normally marketed to “moms,” and now you’re thinking about college students using it for their first apartment. What I’m saying is don’t feel like you have to throw those great ideas away. Tuck them away in a folder with potential for future use. You never know.

Make @#%& Jokes With Care.

When you do feel like you have your target audience pretty well-pinned and what they find funny, figure out what the proverbial “line” is and how close you can get to it. Don’t tell a @#%& joke just for the sake of telling a @#%& joke, but don’t be afraid to tell a @#%& joke if a @#%& joke is really the perfect joke for your audience. (It’s the difference between guy on a first date telling a @#%& joke because that’s seriously the best he’s got, and a guy telling a @#%& because it’s just the ideal zinger for that moment.) One of our clients is Shiner Smokehouse, and quite frankly (they sells brats and sausages, so pun definitely intended), we’ve been helping them tell some very purposeful, very relevant @#%& jokes to show their sausages to the world–and people seem to really dig it. Sometimes, though, it’s just not necessary to go that big. Some audiences, even if they wouldn’t be “offended” by @#%& jokes, would instead prefer a subtle play on words or humor that’s dry and deadpan.

It’s also usually best, except in rare cases, to steer clear of humor that relies on politics or religion or anything else that’s classically controversial or sensitive. (Notice how the comedic elements of the Obama video mentioned earlier aren’t actually politically-charged.) This should go without saying, but sometimes humor is just totally inappropriate: do not try to be a cheeky funeral home. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is try to avoid jokes that will make people cry.

You can be professional without being funny, but if you’re funny, it doesn’t disqualify you from being professional. Use humor as strategically as you would any other aspect of your marketing. Know who you’re talking to. Use references that make sense. Don’t get super risqué just for a lazy attempt at attention, but don’t be scared to be risqué when it’s the perfect moment and you’re confident your audience will be receptive to it. Utilize subtly. Try not to make people cry.