Darth Vader, a Rabbi, and a talking bag of potato chips walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this? A joke?”
I love this humor for two reasons: 1. You can replace all 3 characters in the first part and have endless possibilities. 2. It’s pretty much a dad joke, and I have a soft spot for them.
We love to laugh. Nearly every human will tell you this. Both Alexa and Google Home (give this thing a human name, already!) respond to “tell me a joke.” Siri does too, but I have it on good authority that hers aren’t all that funny.
Why was the cheetah so bad at hide and seek? No matter where she hid, she was always spotted. (Google Home just told me that groaner.)
Should you - can you? - use humor in your marketing? Well, maybe.
Humor in Marketing is Complicated
More accurately, humor itself is complicated. If you’ve not yet watched the incredible Mike Birbiglia’s “Thank God for Jokes” on Netflix, you’re missing a master class in storytelling as well as an entertaining way of explaining the good and bad of humor.
The benefit of jokes is that we all generally love them. One problem with jokes is that some people are great at telling jokes, and others are so bad that it causes massive problems. We’ve seen multitudes of companies apologize for their attempts. So, I get it. It’s scary.
Another problem revolves around jokes and currency. If you make a joke about Fortnight right now, you’re about a year and a half past the zeitgeist (as of February 2020 - this could even be worse). If you tell a joke about something that was current a month ago, it might not even work. There’s a tightrope to walk between a joke feeling ancient versus a joke feeling like it’s past its expiration date.
The Good News: Humor is Powerful
I make a certain joke in a lot of my speeches. I talk about how we all keep our mobile devices very close to our heads, as if we are superheroes or brain surgeons eagerly awaiting a very important call or text that might come in around 2:30 a.m. I stroke my phone while telling this joke, calling it “My precious!” in my best Golem voice. People laugh. They get it because they can identify with it.
Jokes, in the language of my StoryLeader training, are called “belonging stories.” Simply put: a joke can make you feel like you belong to a certain group of people because you get the joke.
In his January 2020 comedy special “For India” (also on Netflix), Vir Das tells a bunch of jokes switching context between jokes that Indian people will totally get but might not make sense to people from other cultures, and then he’ll go on to tell a joke shedding humorous light on Indian culture from the eyes of people outside the culture. Both encourage a kind of belonging, plus his ideas invite a bridging of the two groups. Double bonus.
Should We Be Funny? Yes
People’s attention is fleeting. We also feel more and more every day like a number, as if everything’s just punched out. Like we’re on a conveyer belt.
Humor in marketing is a way to remind people they’re alive. That’s one benefit.
Another benefit: only wise and smart people (companies) can make fun of themselves and feel good about it. Topics that might even be sore spots within the organization might already be in the public eye, and the company has chosen to ignore it. I’ll give you an example.
Have you ever ordered a soft drink? (Don’t say no, you alien.)
“I’ll have a Coke, please.”
“Is Pepsi okay?”
You’ve heard it. Well, if you’re Pepsi, it’s likely that you hate this. It’s a poke in the eye about being the No. 2 soft drink brand. So, you ignore it for years. You do taste tests. You shoot tons of commercials.
Until 2019, when at the Super Bowl, you launch a bit “Is Pepsi OK?” commercial blitz with Cardi B and Steve Carrell and Lil John (the last of which only exists in these because his song “Turn Down for What” has a big loud “OK” in it).
The ad got a lot of press. It was responded to favorably by most accounts. People who loved one of the soft drinks over the other didn’t change their point of view, and I’m sure Pepsi still feels a bit annoyed when people mention them as a secondary choice.
But what it did do is signal to the world that Pepsi gets it. That they’re one of us. That they know what people say and can accept it. And so what? They like what they produce. THAT is the gold earned by Pepsi by using humor in this way.
If you’re going to do humor as part of your marketing, here’s some advice:
- Try ALL humor out internally before it reaches an external audience.
- Run it by people who belong to multiple cultures and genders. You might miss a very significant cultural marker because it’s in your blind spot.
- If it’s about a specific culture that isn’t yours, definitely find people representative of that culture to run it by.
- Stay current. Make sure the joke is about something relevant right now. All your best Peter Falk jokes no longer fly. Sorry. (And if you say “who?”, that’s my point!)
- Have a point of view but be clear that it represents the brand.
Remember that humor isn’t entirely built around telling a solid joke. Sometimes, it’s about bringing characters to life. Saturday Night Live is a series of sketches that bring out absurd takes on cultural and current event news. Shows like The Office and Brooklyn 99 and Insecure give us this by putting characters into funny situations or through dialogue.
It’s worth looking at ways to bring humor to your marketing. Just know that there’s a reason I gave you 75% caution and 25% encouragement.
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