Stop clowning around: 3 reasons jokes don’t sell

People don't buy from clownsWill cracking jokes help you sell?

Considering how often advertisers and agencies put on the fool’s cap and prance about in an attempt to evoke giggles, laughs, and outright guffaws, you would think the answer is “Yes.”

However, we in the direct marketing business are almost always warned against clowning around.

John Caples, in How to Make Your Advertising Make Money, states the generally accepted rule of thumb for most direct marketers, saying simply, “Avoid humor. What is funny to one person is not funny to millions of others.”

But I think Claude C. Hopkins said it best. “People don’t buy from clowns.”

However, while this is accepted at face value by the bean counters, creative people often don’t believe it, since they are by nature inventive, curious, and suspicious of any so-called rule.

Confronted with the dictum “Don’t be funny,” the doubting creative genius will nod in agreement to avoid an argument. However, he or she is secretly thinking, “Yeah. It didn’t work for you, because you didn’t do it right. You’re boring. You’re not funny.”

So, seeing the advice against humor coming from the old fuddy duddies, confident in their own creative prowess, bolstered by shelves of pointy-tipped awards, and besieged by waves of funny ads flowing out of the hottest agencies, creatives continue to see humor as a valid selling tool in every medium.

They believe it’s a matter of proper execution. The logic goes thus: “A clever idea presented correctly will make prospects laugh and put them in the mood to buy.”

Besides the arguable irrelevancy of getting a laugh in the process of making a sale, I see here not just a difference of opinion, but a simple lack of understanding about the nature of humor and how people react to it.

Forget the rules for a moment. Let’s just make the wild, sweeping, unfounded assumption that laughs help us sell. Okay? Now, let’s take a hard look at humor for a moment. Assuming that yuks make bucks, we must ask, “What do people find funny? What can we do to make people laugh?”

A Little-Known Fact: There are only 5 jokes in the whole world

You may think there are a billion jokes chuckling their way around the planet. In fact, there are just five things that make people laugh:

1. Exaggeration — “My mother-in-law is so fat, when she sits around the house, she sits around the house!” When you blow something way out of proportion, that’s exaggeration.

2. The Put-down — The Don Rickles style of comedy isn’t too popular in these politically-correct times. Yet for some, a fast, verbal slap in the face remains unerringly comical. “Boy, are you dumb. If you were any slower, you’d be going backwards.”

3. The Pun — Punning is all about using words and phrases in surprising ways to arrive at something new. At a wedding recently, where the bride wore an off-white gown, a relative leaned over during the ceremony and whispered in my ear, “That’s what I call an Ivory Soap Bride.  99 and 44/100 percent pure.”

4. Surprise — From the Three Stooges pratfall to screaming “Surprise” at a party, witnessing or creating surprise trips a chuckle switch deep down in our brain. (However, we like to surprise others, but don’t like to be surprised ourselves.)

5. Silliness — In his thin book Cruel Shoes, Steve Martin reveals how to “fold soup.” In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur’s knights pretend to ride on invisible horses while their assistants make clopping sounds by banging together empty coconut shells. Jim Carey parades across the movie screen as Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, catching bullets in his teeth. “Aaallllrightythen!” For the more highbrow, this is often called non sequitur humor, meaning “it doesn’t follow.”

A Strategic Problem: You can’t target laughs

Now that we’ve enumerated the various species of humor, let’s look further into the realities of laughter. There are two facts about people worth noting:

1) Some people don’t have a sense of humor at all. They may laugh at something when cued by a crowd, a sitcom laugh track, or situations where they know they are expected to laugh — at the boss’s jokes, for example. But the laughter is not real. Without the cue, they don’t know what’s funny.

2) Few people like all five types of humor. Some will laugh at a pun, while scratching their head at a non sequitur. Another will go into hysterics at an exaggeration, but roll their eyes at a put-down.

These two observations present serious problems. Since some people need a cue to know what’s funny, a joke won’t work with a percentage of your prospects. Let’s assign an arbitrary number to this group, say 10%. In other words, one out of ten prospects won’t get your joke.

Worse, since those who do have a sense of humor won’t respond to all five types of joke, you have more people who won’t get it — or at least won’t like it. Let’s assign more numbers here. Let’s say that everyone with a sense of humor responds well to three kinds of joke (and that’s probably generous). This means that of those with a sense of humor, two out of five won’t laugh.

Since there’s no prospect list in the world that gives you psychographic data so precise that you’ll know what type of humor to use, you can’t target a laugh. Your joke will be thrown out at random.

So, we do a couple calculations, and if my math is right, we arrive at a total of 54% who will laugh and 46% who won’t. Roughly half of your prospects won’t get your joke!

A Timing Problem: People aren’t always in the mood to laugh

Another observation. When you sit down to open your mail at the end of the day, are you looking for a laugh? When you’re rushing to complete an important project at work, do you want a joke in your email inbox? When you’re reading a magazine article about retirement planning, are you receptive to a clever pun about smoke detectors in the ad on the opposite page? When you’re watching a news story about a plane crash, do you expect a good joke about yeast infections during the commercial break?

Regardless of humor type, most of the time, people just aren’t in the mood for humor. People are tired, stressed, and often cranky. Good days are few and far between. People will sit down to watch a funny TV show or two, but jokes just don’t fit into the day-to-day routine.

A Mathematical Problem: Humor Just Doesn’t Add Up

Even assuming perfect creative execution (you’ll need a professional comedian writing the copy), a positive correlation between humor and selling (arguable at best), and a reader/viewer/listener who is in a receptive mood at any given moment (the odds are long), you are still left with the mathematical elimination of half your response.

If you would normally expect a response of 1%, your perfectly executed joke will slash that response to 0.5%.

Yes, yes, yes. I’m playing fast and loose with all these percentages, but you see my point.

Whatever the actual numbers, it should be clear that humor is not an inclusive selling technique, pulling in more prospects. It is an exclusive technique, segmenting and eliminating people based on whether or not they get a joke.

The Conclusion: Don’t use humor

So, will cracking wise help you sell? No. You can be funny and make sales, but you could be straightforward, clear, and direct and make more sales.

I’m not saying that having a “sense of humor” is wrong. Or that your message shouldn’t be warm, open, and light in tone. When appropriate, this can be a good thing. I’m certainly not suggesting that you be deadly dull, serious, and boring all the time. I’m just saying don’t be in the business of telling jokes and trying to be funny.

The next time you think about using humor, or your creative team comes up with a real yuk fest, or your client demands something funny, ask yourself, “Is telling this joke so important that I’m willing to lose half my sales?”

I think you’ll agree, that’s no laughing matter.

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14 Responses to “Stop clowning around: 3 reasons jokes don’t sell”

  1. Brendon B Clark on August 24th, 2010 6:18 pm

    Thanks Dean. Why not to use humor written humorously, which leads to my question.

    I’m good with the thrust of your argument. Your blog, and a couple of others I enjoy, sometimes make me snort my coffee. It’s the tone, or it’s self-deprecating, or witheringly sarcastic etc. Now these aren’t necessarily DM, but here’s where I’m going…

    Blogs are a relationship, and we like how the blogger writes. DM doesn’t necessarily have this component. But can you develop this in DM?

    What about copy for fundraising that builds from a relationship developed in a newsletter or blog? Maybe for existing donors but not for new?

    Or sales pieces for customers we know, where the piece can be customised or personalised with variable data and humor is what they know us for?

    No agenda here Dean, just thinking as I write and wondering where the discussion goes.


  2. Lee McKnight Jr. on August 25th, 2010 11:06 am

    Thorough post Dean, thank you-first time to your blog. All good points, my favorite being “you didn’t do it right.” A lot to be said for selling yourself with charisma, charm, etc. but venturing into humor, outright or subtly, can equal playing with fire-to your overall point.


  3. Ricky Henderson on August 25th, 2010 11:23 am

    I wrote a blog article on the pros and cons of using humor as well. I found examples of several companies who had success and lots of exposure from incorporating humor in their marketing. Check it out for an alternative perspective:

    The Cure for B2B Marketing: A Good Dose of Humor

  4. Dean Rieck on August 25th, 2010 11:59 am

    @Ricky: I see no evidence here that any of these examples are wise ways to sell. Looking at them, I can’t tell what’s being advertised. The joke trumps clear communication. I can almost guarantee that a well written ad that gives prospects relevant benefits will work better. Things like this happen when writers, designers, and clients get bored or don’t know how to sell the product. So we’ll have to agree to disagree on this.

  5. Nonchalant Savant on August 25th, 2010 12:16 pm

    Yeah – tell that to the Old Spice ad folks.

    I will concede, though – they are probably one of the few exceptions.

    Humor for the sake of humor is typically pointless. But when TRUE creatives can figure out how to make humor tie-in to prompt an emotional buying decision – bazinga! That’s golden.

  6. Dean Rieck on August 25th, 2010 12:29 pm

    @Nonchalant: Old Spice is doing brand marketing. This post is about direct marketing. And note that I’m not saying that being lighthearted is wrong, only that focusing on being funny is wrong. 99% of those creating advertising won’t be able to make funny ads sell better than straightforward ads.

  7. Susan Crossman on August 26th, 2010 2:20 pm

    Great words of wisdom, Dean, and thank you for helping save the world from future cringes. It’s always better to stick to the high road and count on clarity than risk a failed attempt at humor that is, bottom line, ineffective.

  8. Dean Rieck on August 26th, 2010 2:25 pm

    @Susan: Sounds like you “get” what I’m saying. It’s not that humor can’t work. It’s just that it’s a low probability tactic. And generally used as a crutch for those who can’t figure out how to sell something directly. When in doubt, tell a joke.

  9. AlexandraFunFit on September 4th, 2010 3:04 pm

    I am not a direct marketing person, but I use humor as part of my job. Our site and presentations (and published works) are based on using humor. We offer humorous advice about fitness as a way to make it more approachable. And my personality on Twitter is exactly the same as my writing and “in-person” self – self-deprecating and a bit snarky. Yet kind and loyal! I think sarcasm and put-downs are not appropriate. But light humor and jest are great. Just my opinion.

  10. Dean Rieck on September 6th, 2010 11:07 am

    @Alexandra: That’s fine. But the point was that trying to be funny, in the way that, for example, some Super Bowl ads are funny, is not a good idea when you’re trying to make sales. It sounds more like you have established a personality for your business, which is not really the same thing. But I would caution you to be careful, for all the reasons in this post.

  11. Andrew BIllmann on September 14th, 2010 1:05 pm

    I think many creatives mistakenly see humor as a way to be engaging. When they do, the execution usually fails for all the reasons Dean mentions. We don’t buy products because the ad was funny. We just don’t.

    I know, I know… a funny ad gets attention. True. But it usually doesn’t engage the audience with the reasons to buy. At best, it’s a momentary joke that might be genuinely funny. At worst, it provides a few seconds of entertainment with the prospect having no idea what’s being sold and why. Take the logos out of most Super Bowl ads and I rest my case.

    Conversely, when engaging copy or visual concepts use a bit of humor, they can work very well. But the humor is an added touch, not the primary tactic. The first priority should be SALES. And that’s accomplished through clear, engaging writing that MIGHT be a little light-hearted or include a little humor.

    I’m amazed at how many writers, agencies and freelancers think their clients’ budgets are a forum to show off mediocre comedy skills, usually with no accountability for results.

  12. Carl on September 20th, 2010 12:26 am

    So true, Dean, in my experience. I used to work for an agency that did the DM for Providian and WaMu (before they went kaput). We learned two things: humor doesn’t sell, and brand marketing in DM doesn’t sell. With us, it was actually we “creatives” that didn’t want to do the so-called creative stuff, it was the client’s product manager types who wanted some jollys. We wanted to focus on strong offers and benefits, because that’s what gets results.

    However, we did find that a wry tone was appropriate for WaMu. It fit the brand and let us write in a clear manner that was just a bit lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek. But we were always direct about listing features and benefits: People are serious about their money.

  13. Leigh on October 22nd, 2010 4:36 pm

    Hmm… My creative feathers are ruffled by this. I DO think humor fits well in a niche market. Though I would agree that it’s not the stuff of direct marketing (as you pointed out).

  14. Dean Rieck on October 22nd, 2010 6:12 pm

    Are those feathers rubber, as in rubber chicken feathers? :)

    My point is just that humor can work in a selling situation, but it’s a tricky business. Remember that retail/branding is entirely different from direct. In branding, you want people to feel good about the product and remember it for a later purchase decision. In direct, you need an immediate purchase decision. In my experience, humor more often than not gets in the way for direct. It’s a low odds tactic.

    And really, it’s low odds for branding too. It’s usually used inappropriately and for the wrong reasons.

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