Hold It, What Are You Laughing For?

Paul Burke, a freelance copywriter and novelist, thinks advertising is no longer funny. He knows what of he speaks, and he knows why.

“A client erring on the side of caution is like a pope erring on the side of Catholicism,” he argues in Campaign. In other words, you need to take substantial risks to create the kind of emotional bonds that music, art, comedy, theater, literature, and the very best advertising help to cement.

But ad people can’t blame clients alone for poorly constructed work that fails to emit a faint smile or simple chuckle from the viewer. Ad people need to take a hard look at themselves, before pointing too many fingers.

The beanbags, think pods, breakout areas, hot desks and cold feeling of dread whenever you walk into one. The full horror is completed by “inspirational” maxims graffitied on the walls: “Good is the enemy of great,” “Believe and achieve,” “Creativity is the cure.” These always remind me of a far more apposite phrase: “Make me laugh. Don’t tell me you’re funny.”

Agency bean counters and inauthentic creative leaders can share the blame. Meanwhile, I also think the audience in many cases today lacks a well-developed sense of humor. There are plenty of cultural reasons for this, including the onslaught of news, much of it consistently bad, which sours the mood.

Did you know that the Nazis passed laws in 1933 and 1934 that banned jokes criticising the regime, although anti-Semitic “humour” was encouraged? As dark clouds hover, advertising needs to ramp up the funny.

Here’s how car-maker Kia handles “the environment” in commercial terms:

Threats to the environment are one of the most serious issues of our time. Nevertheless, people need to laugh, particularly when faced with heavy realities like climate change and political upheaval. I need to laugh.

Given that 25 million people liked the video on YouTube, I have to believe the power of celebrity, combined with physical comedy and several gentle nods to laugh heartily at oneself, works pretty well. Kia got people to lighten up for a minute. That’s good.

Of course, a sense of humor is a highly personal matter, like fingerprints, which makes it exceedingly difficult for mass marketers to strike a funny chord with too wide of a demographic. For instance, I find this experiential PR stunt for Saturday Night Live funnier and more memorable than the Kia Spot:

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About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.