The Secret to Humor in Ad Copy

We’ve all come across humor successfully used in marketing. For instance, in TV ads showing clever canines fetching their owners a beer, radio ads with aliens cleansing our drinking water, even print ads with famous people wearing milk mustaches. Numerous leverage dry wit. Others are merely silly. A few are in bad taste. And some, well, they aren’t even funny.

Where humor fits

Does humor work in advertising? Is it okay to try for a couple of laughs when discussing your product and services? Of course. But does humor sell? There are no absolutes, no easy answers to a question like that. What we do understand as advertisers is that, like everything else in life, humor has its place. In advertising, that place should continuously be clearly specified and understood. Ask anyone who has told an inappropriate joke at the wrong time: humor used indiscriminately can be a catastrophe– for your product, your brand, and your sales. And that’s never funny.

Making human contact

The objective of leveraging humor in advertising is to make human contact and break the monotony barrier. This undetectable barrier goes up as your audience is exposed to more and more advertising every single day. This phenomenon (known as “banner blindness”) is the result of tens-of-thousands of ads that fight for our attention every single day. This evolutionary response that began as a means to highlight important, dangerous information when our survival needed it most allowed us to notice and process anything out of the ordinary quickly and efficiently. Simultaneously, though, it means the brain begins to ignore information that it knows is non-threatening. Take, for example, a red berry amid a blackberry bush. We’ll notice it first because accidentally eating the wrong berry could mean life or death.

Of course, these days, the stakes aren’t as high, but this psychological mechanism is the bane of an advertiser’s existence.

The consumer brain locks out what it sees or hears and says, “I understand a sales pitch is coming; I’m tuning out.” Humor is one way to bypass this mechanism—to get your message through. Much like a speaker who starts with a funny anecdote to ‘start a conversation,’ using an amusing scenario or character can make your audience more responsive as you segue into your selling message.

Treading lightly with humor

It only takes one improper remark for the audience to be instantly turned off and shoot their barrier right back up– perhaps even permanently. Your product could quickly become the proverbial “red berry.”

Humor may open the gate to the consumer, but the fact remains: it can be risky. Comedy isn’t received universally—in fact; it’s quite the opposite. I’ve heard of one advertisement for a burial service with the headline: “We’re the last ones to let you down.” Though some may find it funny, it’s easy to imagine why sales didn’t jump through the roof.

The majority of professional comics know that humor resonates best when broad and even-handed, demonstrating universal truths or circumstances that apply to us all. They set up a character and scenario we can all identify with, then put that character through actions we might be able to relate to, having experienced it ourselves.

It’s challenging to be funny, particularly in print

Being funny on TV or even on the radio isn’t a cake-walk, but it’s even more challenging in print. There’s no motion, no remarkable impact outside of letters, no ridiculous animals to display, or goofy shenanigans to pull off– just a fixed visual and heading. Print is one medium where innovative writers have to fight for the best outcome when using humor in advertising: funny text that instantly checks all of the boxes. After all, in a split second, you’ve got to develop the character, establish the circumstance, and deliver the laugh line. It resembles a comic strip, but this one is a single frame. It can be done, but it isn’t particularly easy. And when you have actually broken the monotony barrier, that’s when your work is just beginning.

Losing Focus

The work of breaking down a consumer’s banner blindness is so challenging advertisers sometimes forget that the purpose of any advertisement, funny or not, is to get individuals to do something. It’s fine for your audience to react with, “That’s a funny advertisement,” as long as they continue with, “That’s a fantastic item!” Humor needs to not only get their attention, but it also must accent or showcase the brand or product identity, not bury them under a laugh. Some truly amusing ads experience “generic identity,” a scenario where your audience likes the advertisement—and may even find it hilarious— but can’t differentiate the actual product being shown from your competitor’s. Not amusing.

When you’re considering writing a funny headline, remember this: it’s not for beginners. As any expert comedian will inform you, being comical is severe company. So even if you consider yourself a master joke teller or the life of any party, you should probably still leave creating funny advertisements to the pros.

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