Funny Ads: Do Yucks Make Bucks or Cut Sales in Half?

by Dean Rieck

Do funny ads sell?

Considering how often advertisers and ad 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, the gurus of direct selling almost always warn against it. 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."

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, nor just a conflict between the more and less experienced, 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 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's retelling of the legend of King Arthur, 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. 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 mail slot? 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 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 creative 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.

Copyright © 1996 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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