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Buying from clowns

January 2018 6 min read


There are two things about which men should not joke. One is business, one is home.” - Claude Hopkins

Humour is humour, and marketing is marketing, and never the twain shall meet. Valid argument or an outdated assessment?

As with most things in life, there are conflicting schools of thought on the matter. Claude Hopkins (quoted above) makes his feelings on the subject abundantly clear, however; another great power in advertising, David Ogilvy (of Ogilvy and Mather) said “the best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible”.

Modern marketers have tended to follow the Ogilvy path, with marketing campaigns increasingly including elements of humour and self-deprecation.

The following jumble of words will look into how a sprinkle of playfulness can cultivate fruitful relationships with clients, but also how it can erode brand identity if it is not wielded correctly.

Establishing a connection with your target audience

As marketers, our primary goal should be to forge a connection with the target audience, opening the door for a long-term business relationship and enable regular transactions.

Humour is can be a powerful tool in helping forge these connections since it has been proven to be a strong social bonding mechanism throughout human history. To share a laugh with someone is to share a mutual understanding – that is, being on the same wavelength. Sharing a laugh implies that there is also a shared understanding between the joke-teller and the audience. Existing on the same wavelength as the customer can help us to achieve those highly sought-after marketing goals: sales growth, brand awareness, and increase in market-share.

This is not to say that there are no risks associated with attempting to reach this level of shared understanding. Since you’re not addressing a live audience, but rather, on the other side of a computer screen, it becomes far more difficult to understand if the attempt at humour was well-received or if you’ve just ended up looking ridiculous.

The author and journalist, Arthur Koestler suggested that the effectiveness of a joke relies on a shift in context: in the case of a pun, replacing a word with a similar-sounding word with a different meaning; parodies, where a well-known, familiar cultural item is used in an unfamiliar environment; or meta-humour, in which the audience has to understand the concept of a joke (layers on layers on layers…).

You’re therefore relying an awful lot on the audience keeping up-to-speed with your attempts at humour, which is quite a heavy burden to place on them. That’s why it would be a fantastic idea to do some research on your demographics - their likes and dislikes, and their preferred communication channels, to give yourself the best possible chance of making them chuckle.

Customers buy from brands that they like

We tend to share our lives with people we like, and this is no different in business – we prefer to buy from brands that we like and view as trustworthy. Laughter is a by-product from the time spent in the company of the people we like, and as humans; we make attempts at humour when we meet new people for the first time in order to create a social bond.

Very recently, we’ve seen that the personification of brands has had a tangible effect on a business’ fortunes. Disruptive taxi rascal, Uber has had a rough time of it recently, mainly due to the actions of former CEO, Travis Kalanick and his successor, Dara Khosrowshahi. And because the guys in charge of the company have not been acting in a very likeable manner, customers now like them much less than they did before - as demonstrated by a 20% loss in company value since last year.

Uber’s rival, Lyft has pounced opportunity presented in the ride-sharing market, launching a new video marketing campaign featuring Jeff Bridges (I challenge you to find a more likeable man on the planet), 19th-century American history, and most importantly: a sense of humour.

More to it than catching a consumer’s attention?

So, it can be established that a selective use of humour can have a real impact on sales, but what’s more difficult to identify is where along the marketing funnel humour might be most effective.

Back in the seventies when TV advertising became a key element of the marketing strategy; 55% of advertising executives believed that humorous advertisements were better at gaining the audience’s attention than non-humorous advertising. These hunches were backed up by the work of psychologist, Steven Schmidt, who theorised that humour had a beneficial effect on both our verbal and visual memory.

A list of the Huffington Post’s “Greatest TV ads of all time” is chock-full of funny adverts, ranging from PG Tips to Tango to Reebok. These ads have clung to the cultural consciousness for years, in no large part due to them being a little bit funny.

So, do funny marketing campaigns simply draw our attention to the product/service? Or does humour have any effect on the engagement, discovery, purchase, and retention stages of the marketing funnel? Well, according to the work of a couple more psychologists, Stewart and Fiorse; humour tends to increase our comprehension of an advert’s value proposition. So, not only will your audience be more likely to remember your goods and services if the campaign includes an element of humour, but they will also gain a more complete understanding of its features and particular usefulness.

Humour tends to have a greater effect on low-involvement products compared to high-involvement products. Low-involvement products, such as groceries, toiletries, and household cleaning products, don’t require much thought on the part of the consumer (if you’re spending 4 hours in Tesco’s confectionary aisle deciding between a Crunchie and a Wispa, you’ve got far deeper issues), and therefore the consumer can be more easily swayed.

However, certain high-involvement products (purchase decisions that tend to take an extended period of time) have begun to ‘think funny’: Volkswagen’s use of a mini Darth Vader in the automobile sector; Capital One’s collaboration with Jimmy Fallon to promote their credit card rewards; and Yopa’s tv commercial campaign featuring the Village People, encouraging viewers to sell their home through the Yopa platform, are just some examples of this transition.

Undermining the value of your product or service?

Does humour shatter the trustworthiness of a vendor? Does humour imply that the product is not as good as a product from a competitor that poses as a serious brand?

There is a danger that your humorous messaging could erode the value of the goods you’re attempting to sell to your target audience.

In 2015, Microsoft Visual Studio decided it would be a great idea to try and connect with millennials through the tried-and-tested combination of puns, dubstep, and a cartoon dinosaur. The whole campaign seems to have been built around the gold-standard play-on-words “Jur-bass-ic”, which in addition to not explaining the product’s value proposition, didn’t make any sense when said aloud – sort of ruining the point of a pun.

Microsoft's disastrous attempt to connect with millennials.

Microsoft's disastrous attempt to connect with millennials.

Microsoft has a strong reputation as one of the leading global providers of software and hardware, and this advert does little to enhance their brand.

This attempt at humour could’ve actually harmed their reputation within their existing customer base. Further, it comes across as cringey to the millennial audience with whom they are so desperate to connect. In fact, this very example ended becoming a target of ridicule by those very same millennials on Reddit. And as we all know, no-one wants to be a figure of ridicule on Reddit.

There are clear benefits to incorporating elements of humour in marketing campaigns. And although most of the examples referenced in this article deal with television advertising – the underlying principles can be used to reinforce your content marketing, direct marketing, and social media efforts – just to name a few.

There is a risk that you can alienate your audience if you miss your mark at your attempt at humour; however, if your content production process is sound and involves a few other people – any hazards can easily be avoided.


If you would like to learn more about adapting content for different audiences, please visit our Content Marketing page.

Written by Joe Sanders Digital Marketing Executive

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author unless explicitly stated. Unless of course, the article made you laugh, in which case, all credit should be directed towards our marketing department.