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Why do we listen: the fine line of comedy

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Written by: Ben Moore
Sometimes I wonder whether we shouldn’t rename marketing to ‘the attention industry’. After all, attention is what it’s all about. We grow it, control it, barter it, pay for it, and sell it to others. We spend our days learning how to get it and deciding what to do with it when we do.

With this series, I’m hoping to delve a little deeper than usual into what makes attention tick. In our first article, we looked at the power of causes to help us situate our identities and values. Brand after brand has proved the viability of cause-based marketing as a strategy. However, there’s a more obvious motivation for giving our attention away: amusement.

We love to laugh. Mediums that amuse us satisfy a need for gratification lurking deep in the human psyche. What, and why, this need exists, however, remains elusive. And this touches upon one of the central issues of using amusement as a marketing tactic; its mysterious nature means we can never be sure of how people will react. What makes one viewer giggle may make the next cringe.

Many brands successfully use entertainment value in their marketing to achieve fantastic results. Many more have missed the mark and dragged their brand through the mud. The line between a hysterically funny ad and an off-color monstrosity is extremely fine and tends to swing around depending on context.

To explore amusement value in marketing a little further, let’s take a look at two well-known, comedy-driven ads that experienced drastically different reactions from the public. Both ads profit from a profound sense of narrative throughout, which creates a basis for the humor we experience on screen.

Best of the best

Old Spice’s ‘The man your man could smell like’ campaign is one we keep coming back to. For our purposes today, it’s the perfect example of how comedy can be leveraged to garner viral attention. The original video has attracted over 54 million views, resulting in a sales increase for Old Spice of 11%.

Worst of the worst

Tinder’s Menprovement campaign was released to general confusion and a broad panning by newspapers. The ad aims to sell its new emoji feature as a way of combatting online abuse, or as the ad calls it, ‘douchiness’. It plays up the sassy attitude of women in the hopes of reconnecting with an increasingly withdrawn user base.

Both of these campaigns have a strong sense of narrative running throughout. Most likely, the difference in reception between the two stems from a considered understanding of the social context in which these narratives take place. The first takes a fairly unserious subject – that of boyfriends being slightly inadequate – and applies a cartoonish spin to the delivery that, mixed with perfect comedy timing, makes for a hilarious and memorable experience.

The other ad tackles a subject that can be considered sinister at one end of the spectrum, or deeply sexist at the other, and fails to conclusively reconcile either. On one hand, the subject of online abuse is a very serious one which the ad fails to adequately address. On the other, making fun of men just for being themselves sends a very negative message. Moreover, it’s all delivered with a po-faced seriousness that leaves the viewer morally disorientated; we’re unsure whether it’s supposed to be real or not.

We gather from this that the key to effective comedy in marketing is lack of ambiguity. When the cartoonish nature of your material shines through then your audience knows how to react; either laugh or don’t. When the tone remains ambiguous, audiences are more than likely going to err on the side of criticism.

So, should you aim for humor in your next campaign? Well, the answer is this; only if it doesn’t confuse or overshadow the central message. If you’re trying to paste funny over the main focus of the ad, chances are you’re going to lose our attention. However, if comedy is an integral part of the message you’re trying to convey, there’s a good chance it will work. And as with everything in marketing, you never know unless you try.