Humor In Marketing: Why It Works, A Harsh Reality, And How To Do It Right

Humor In Marketing: Why It Works, A Harsh Reality, And How To Do It Right

One of the best and most valuable talents a human being can have is saying, writing or producing something that makes people laugh. It’s memorable, influential, fun and inspiring. It’s a talent that ranks right up there with the ability to hit a curveball.

Every day, businesses and organizations incorporate humor into their marketing content. Many do it effectively and reap the rewards. Many more fail and waste money.

Failure is usually the result of poor execution, but it’s also due to the fact that most people don’t understand why humor in marketing works in the first place.

Unless you dropped close to $4 million for one 30-second ad in the Super Bowl, the main goal and benefit of using humor is not to get people blathering on social media about how funny you, your business or your content is.

Actually, I think that’s a misguided approach for the Super Bowl, too – more on that later – because using humor is an effective marketing tactic for a much different reason.

Humor In Marketing Is So Powerful Because It Gets People To Let Down Their Defenses

If you make us laugh, or say something that takes us back to a life experience that was funny, we’ll become less apprehensive and more likely to listen to what you have to say next.

Humor has the same effect as a strong headline that compels us to keep reading. It’s a hook. Because you got us to let down our defenses, or at least lower them a bit, we’re more open to finding out what you can do to educate us, solve a problem for us, or make life easier for us.

We like and trust you a little more than we did five minutes ago. And you might even make us laugh again. All of these factors put us a few steps closer to doing business with you. But before you start testing your best one-liners on staff, family and friends, you must come to terms with one harsh reality.

You’re Probably Not As Funny As You Think You Are

People who think they’re hysterical enough to have their own HBO special are the same kind of people who sing in the shower and think they can carry a tune like an opera singer. Both are wrong.

More wrong than fingernails on a chalkboard.

Not everyone can be Jimmy Fallon or Tina Fey. Most of us can’t even be Drew Carey. This doesn’t mean you can’t use humor in your marketing. It just means you should proceed with caution and use humor strategically instead of firing off a tweet or blog whenever you have a “funny” observation that you feel must be shared with the world. Here are a few tips that can help you do it right.

Humor Should Enhance Your Marketing Message

Unless you’re an entertainer or comedian, the sole purpose of your content should not be to entertain or amuse.

If the humor you’re using doesn’t reinforce your marketing message or do something – anything – to make someone more likely to do business with you, it’s just a fluff-filled and usually self-serving distraction.

This is why I think so many Super Bowl advertisers miss the mark. They’re more focused on creating a buzz than creating a sale. Or establishing trust. Or conveying some kind of value.

I remember the Super Bowl ad with the little kid in the Darth Vader costume trying to use “the force.” I thought it was hilarious. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the auto brand that was doing the advertising.

I hope those millions were worth the temporary buzz. I wonder if it actually moved any cars. Personally, I’d much rather have someone say “I want to hire you to write my website content and weekly blogs” than “you’re freakin’ hilarious!”

You Don’t Have To Turn Your Content Into A Stand-Up Routine

Stand-up comedians are under pressure to be funny every time they open their mouths, whether they’re setting up a joke or delivering the punch line. Your marketing content can use humor effectively without being a comedy show.

More often than not, setting up a single joke or funny scenario and delivering a single, funny punch line is the best way to go. It’s like when Jerry Seinfeld taught George Costanza about Vegas showmanship. When you hit the high note, you say “good night” and get off the stage. Leave them wanting more. Or in the case of marketing content, transition to the meat and bones of your message while you have them hooked.

Humor Doesn’t Have To Elicit A Big Belly Laugh To Be Effective

You have to be pretty darn funny to make someone laugh hysterically. If your material is funny enough to do that, fantastic. But nothing falls flatter than an attempt at big time humor that really isn’t very funny.

Picture the guy at the bar who tells a story with a big build up to what he thinks is a hilarious crescendo, only to end up laughing hysterically by himself.

Humor in marketing can be successful if it simply makes someone smile and nod without a sound.

That means your audience gets it. You don’t have to hit a home run every time because, like I said earlier, humor alone won’t deliver the end result you want to achieve. Sometimes you just need to use subtle humor to get you on base, and let the rest of your content bring you around to score. That score could be a like, a share, a registration or even a sale.

It’s Only Funny If Your Audience Thinks It’s Funny

Something that you and your employees laugh about in the lunch room may not be funny to your potential clients. Inside jokes are best kept inside.

Humor in your marketing should amuse your target audience, not yourself.

Just like every single aspect of any marketing program, humor should be relevant to your audience, or loosely connected to something relevant at the very least. Talk about funny scenarios and issues that people can relate to. One general comment about taste because I believe “good taste” is in the eye of the beholder – if  you’re on the fence about whether or not something is offensive, don’t include it in your marketing content. Certain types of businesses can push the envelope. Most can’t. And stay away from politics. Please. I defriended enough people last year.

What are the most effective examples of humor in marketing that you’ve seen?

Scott McKelvey
Scott helps business owners enhance their brand, build relationships and increase revenue by developing marketing messages that focus on the needs of their clients. Scott writes content for all things marketing, from websites and blogs to web videos and brochures. As Creative Director for New Jersey’s largest radio stations and TargetSpot, the nation’s largest internet radio advertising network, Scott has helped local, regional and national brands maximize ROI by combining powerful messaging with strategic geographic and demographic targeting. Scott's philosophy is simple: Show your target audience how your product can solve a real problem or fill a real need in their lives and you'll build a base of loyal customers. Visit Scott's site for more about his writing philosophy and experience.
Scott McKelvey
Scott McKelvey
  • Scott, you hit the nail on the head. Humor takes a lot of thought and must be relevant to your content and who you are targeting. I think the hardest part is execution, execution, execution…..Miss here and it is wasted effort.

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Vicki – It’s definitely not easy. Being funny doesn’t come naturally to most of us and incorporating it seamlessly into marketing is a whole different challenge in itself. If you can be funny, make a connection and make a sale, then do it. If you can’t, lose the funny part. Thanks – Scott

  • Thank You for articulating the details of using humor for influence.

    One of the most touching comments I received about my blog and tweeter postings on the subject of inspiring people to maintain a litter-free environment year round, is that I come across as positive and with a sense of humor instead of blaming, complaining, and focusing on the dirty, ugly, side of trash. I try to
    de-stigmatize litter picking instead of focusing on stigmatizing littering
    behaviors. Using humor softens those who might take the prior approach (As you said, helps lower defenses).

    One can say only so much about litter and litter picking directly before losing
    even the strongest advocates of litter cleanup. Therefore, I use stories,
    photos, and humor to advocate this cause, keep folks interested, and
    demonstrate my belief that litter picking is fun, addictive and a healthy
    All-Season Sport. (Drop a piece you lose a point; pick up a piece and you gain
    a point).

    For sampling of my blog posting using humor photos and captions @
    http://litterwithastorytotell.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2013-01-19T18:34:00-05:00&max-results=50

    For sampling of my blog posting short story using humor, go to http://litterwithastorytotell.blogspot.com/2011/01/local-man-spots-trash.html

    Effective use of humor? Please do leave a comment on my postings on what you think.

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Bernie – That’s a lot of litter talk. Are you saying my blog is garbage? Just kidding. That’s a valid point and an admirable approach. I guess I’m probably a cross between littering and litter picking. Thanks for the links – I’ll check them out! Scott

  • Very nice article! I know you’re talking specifically about humor, but your main idea — “the sole purpose of your marketing content shouldn’t be to entertain or amuse” — goes for any marketing communications strategy that assumes you have to “entertain” an “audience” rather than exchange ideas and information with clients, potential clients and colleagues.

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Angelique – Absolutely! Entertaining for the sake of entertaining without weaving it into a message with substance is a complete waste of time and money. Thanks – Scott

  • HI Scott, I love how you talk about the big guy who laughs at his own jokes. to funny. Agreed Your humor should amuse your readers not YOU 🙂 Thanks for sharing Great Article by the way. Chery 🙂

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Chery – Well, in this case, it’s a painfully accurate metaphor. Glad you enjoyed the article! Scott

  • Hi Scott,

    I think that people trying to be funny are usually not funny. On the other hands the real funny guys are those with a straight face who are not even trying to be funny.

    I guess it’s the same thing when we write. Carol, for example, makes me laugh a lot. I told her that several times. Even in her comments on my blogs she often makes me laugh, but I bet she is not even trying to. She is just funny that way 🙂

    I am so glad you mentioned that commercial that we all remember just can’t darn remember the car that commercial was about. That happens quite often in commercials. you kind of remember the story but what the heck that commercial was for? What a waste of money!.

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Sylviane – Yes, I find dry humor to be hysterical but that can be really difficult to translate to marketing copy. Oh, that Carol – comedian 🙂 Speaking of $4 million Super Bowl commercials, does anyone distinctly remember any of them – less than a week after they aired?

  • Hi Scott

    I love this post. I am an Australian and the majority of us love humor and most of us think we are funny. You made me squirm on that one 🙂

    Like Sylviane I love the way Carol used humor in her posts and I am always smiling reading her content.

    Humor in marketing makes sense to me – but really one of the criteria for me being close to someone is they have to have a sense of humor.

    Sue

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Sue – Thanks! You make a good point – everyone seems to gravitate to a person who’s funny. That’s why we all like to think we’re funny, and that’s the lure of using humor in marketing. I think we just need to remember that the goal of marketing is to solve problems and fill needs, not make people laugh. If you can successfully do both, that’s a home run, but not everyone can hit home runs. Jeez, more love for Carol’s humor. I don’t know – maybe some day she’ll make me laugh :)~ Scott

  • Marquita Herald

    Thought provoking Scott – now that I think about it I’ve never even attempted humor in the articles I write, which is interesting because for years I did a lot of public speaking with my job and loved to inject humor into my presentations. I honestly can’t think of articles I’ve seen recently that I would consider humor – mostly it’s captions on photos. Now I’m going to be on the look out – you’ve definitely got my mind working over time – thanks!

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Marquita – Glad I got you thinking! Like I said, injecting humor into your marketing doesn’t mean you have to be hysterical. Just making someone smile is a powerful thing. Thanks – Scott

  • Adrienne

    I love humor Scott, I actually find that a very attractive quality. A lot of people don’t get other people’s “jokes” so at times that can put you in a very awkward position.

    I’ve heard people tell me I’m hilarious and that I should have my own show. I totally don’t get what they’re talking about because I don’t see myself that way at all. My brother is the jokester in this family.

    In marketing it can come across in a way that does more harm then good. I definitely wouldn’t want to touch that one myself. Nothing to me stands out to be honest with you. Personally, a lot of what I see I just shake my head wondering what they were even thinking.

    ~Adrienne

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Adrienne – Same here. I think I would find it hard to spend a lot of time with someone who didn’t make me laugh. It’s such a fine line to walk when you bring it into your marketing. I keep going back to the Super Bowl commercials. I remember laughing at a commercial a few times during the game, but I don’t remember what was being advertised, which means I won’t be buying it. Thanks – Scott

  • Donna Merrill

    Hi Scott,
    I love humor because I believe it is a great “healer” When I come to Carol’s blog, there is just enough humor there to keep a smile on my face or a giggle. It is not overdone, but Carol shoots from the heart!
    When writing our blogs or commenting, we can use a little humor in our writing. I think the best way to do it is to write something candid! Or just give an opinion.
    I do receive comments that people find funny sometimes.
    To me, humor should be used like a spice….not too much, but just enough to give it some taste.

    Donna

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Donna – It’s true that a good laugh can make your troubles seem to disappear, at least for a moment, right? I think the reason why Carol’s humor works is because it’s natural and never forced or overdone. If you’ve ever had a conversation with her like I have, you know that’s exactly how she talks. Humor in marketing is just like anything else – it needs to be natural. Thanks – Scott

  • lynn jones

    I too believe humor is very effective. However, if one is not a funny person, it can feel forced. I think it has to be natural. We can’t all be funny, we have to be ourselves. 🙂

    Great post! I agree!
    Lynn

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Lynn – Nobody wants to do business with someone who comes off as phony or tries to be something he or she is not. Humor isn’t a prerequisite for likeability. Like you said, just be yourself! Thanks – Scott

  • Raena Lynn

    Hello Carol and Scott,

    I loved your article. I was drawn to read it because of the title. I haven’t given much thought about effectively using humor in marketing, but I saw the light when you mentioned the Super Bowl. You make a great point about the Darth Vader commercial. I remember it from last year, and it was very cute and funny. I have no idea of what car company it represented. Some people watch the Super Bowl for the game. Some people watch it for the commercials. Some people watch it for blackouts (ineffective use of humor). This year, only counting “funny commercials” I vote for the Doritos princess daddy. That was funny and there was no doubt the product was Doritos.

    You summarized the purpose of using humor in marketing by this quote. “Humor has the same effect as a strong headline that compels us to keep reading. It’s a hook. Because you got us to let down our defenses, or at least lower them a bit, we’re more open to finding out what you can do to educate us, solve a problem for us, or make life easier for us.” I think that is very powerful. I’m not sure if there is anything else that can accomplish this feat in such a short period of time. Humor has to be natural to be effective and it certainly adds so much more enjoyment to content if executed well.

    After reading your post, I know I will be noticing how humor is used in posts and articles and whether it’s intent is effective. Thank you!

    Raena Lynn

    • Scott_McKelvey

      Hi Raena Lynn – I think Doritos works so well because they have the contest to see who can make the best commercial, which creates a lot of build up to the game. It’s not just the commercial – it’s the unveiling of a contest winner. The pre-game buzz among entrants and their personal networks creates incredible value. Yes, humor is a powerful force – if used properly. That’s a huge “if.” Thanks – Scott