Is comedy in advertising a bit of a joke? | DMA

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Is comedy in advertising a bit of a joke?


Want to know my sitcom idea? An advertising agency continuously tries to be funny, with unintentionally hilarious results!

So why do comedy? Why take the risk of getting it painfully wrong? It’s certainly a way to avoid being vanilla, or being po-faced, and with people becoming more sceptical about brands having ‘purpose’ (where there clearly isn’t one), it’s a device to not take yourself too seriously. Which can get very boring.

Maybe we marketers feel less guilty when we make our communications funny? “I’m dreadfully sorry you have to watch my ad at half-time, but at least it’ll make you laugh…”

Anthropologists would say humour is one of the building blocks of social interaction. If you laugh with someone you feel connected; they’re like you because you laugh at the same things. Everyone likes gags, so being funny makes brands seem human. Get it right and it makes your advertising more memorable. So, if it’s that easy, why don’t we do it more often?


Maybe too many brands are trying to be funny at the moment. The humour has to naturally fit with your brand truth. Where there is no tangible brand connection, brands have veered more and more into being surreal in lieu of a having a genuinely funny idea – or any idea – in an attempt to stand out. Sometimes it works, but like all comedy, unless it’s perfectly executed, it can seem confusing and just as desperate and toe-curling as a bad gag.

It’s only going to get trickier. Comedy has always poked fun at stereotypes and others’ misfortune, which is obviously very dicey ground for any brand. But comedy has the ability to be funny while being gentle. Using pathos without the need to be nasty, sexist or racist. But somebody somewhere will be offended, and that is a risk that many brands don’t want to take. Add in the trend of ‘one global ad for all markets’ and it’s even harder not to be vanilla. Yet although different countries may find different things funny, humour can connect people from diverse backgrounds in seconds.


We have to remember we’re not writing for our taste, but for the customers’ taste. Agency creative teams will have just a few days to come up with something, yet comedy needs real craft and it’s VERY subjective. You need brilliant writing, casting, direction and brilliant clients who have an open mind.

Can’t we just use famous comedians or actors? Yes, but it’ll cost you – they don’t need our cash now that comedy is the new rock and roll. Take Foster’s Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge. As branded content it was genuinely funny, but when they wrote original comedy themselves – the male cheerleader bumpers – I’d argue they weren’t as funny. But Alan is a tough act to follow, as any weatherman from Norwich will tell you.


Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh. An often used, wise maxim. But it’s not just writing comedy that’s hard, it’s selling it. Think of your all-time favourite comedy sketch or scene. Now try reading it out to someone who’s never seen it. Is it funny? Is your rendition making all your friends laugh? Probably not. It’s tough.

Now imagine having one shot to present your own material to your clients – do they get it? Are they all laughing? No? Does that mean it’s not funny? No, of course not. It doesn’t mean it is funny, but it does mean everyone in the room has to make a leap of faith, to imagine it polished and performed, directed, written and re-written until it’s spot on.


The good old press ad has produced some classic comedic ads. There’s something about the purity of words and pictures on one page that lets the idea shine through. We’ve had the golden age of social posts that let agencies riff on current affairs and be a bit cheekier than usual, but by and large those days are gone: short-form video rules the waves now.

We’re in a world with millions of new LOLworthy films, gifs and memes appearing by the hour. Yet with six to fifteen second films – is there room for characters, comedic pauses, dialogue of any description and your brand message? Yes, there is, but you have to know your platforms and use the restrictions to your advantage. The freedom of a tight brief holds as true now as it ever did.

Perhaps more than ever, humour is a very powerful weapon in our armoury. It doesn’t have to be a belly laugh. It can be subtle, a smile in the mind. You’ve only got a few seconds, so grab their attention, make ‘em laugh and your brand has earned a bit of warmth. You do have to be your own worst critic in judging work, but you have to just go with it at times and with a fair wind, clients and your audience will love it too.

Here’s where I end on a funny quip. Except I’m not trying to be funny. So you won’t be let down. I’m not going to turn around and accidentally whack you with a plank of wood. I told you, being funny is tricky.

Author: Graeme Noble, Chief Creative Officer, TMW Unlimited

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