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Why humour doesn’t work

What makes you laugh? Slapstick? Wordplay? Cartoons?

All of those tickle my funny bone – and a lot more besides. But I bet you’ve had the experience I’ve had. You’re at a party, in a bar, or making a speech … you crack a joke … and nobody laughs. In fact someone in the group actually looks quite offended.

Your sense of humour is a very personal thing. In fact a shared sense of humour can bind two people so tightly together that it will get them through all kinds of scrapes. So if humour is such a powerful human motivator, we should use it on our copywriting, right? Er, no.

The trouble with humour in copywriting is twofold.

First, it doesn’t travel well. My belly laugh is your wintry smile. Your guffaw is my “ho hum”. Our uncontrollable giggling is their “so what”.

Two, there’s nothing funny about making money – or spending it. In fact it’s one of the most worrying decisions that many people ever make. Particularly if they don’t have much of the stuff to chuck around.

Yet many companies still resort to humour to sell their products (or rather, to fill up the expensive media space they’ve just paid for). There are a number of categories of humour that crop up in copywriting – often, though not exclusively, in press advertising. Here are three of the usual suspects:

The headline pun

This is a favourite of lazy writers everywhere (and I have to fess up to having used it myself on occasion. Not for years, you understand – I’m dragging the lake here).

A typical example would be a headline for an ad selling subscriptions to a report on the electricity industry. It goes something like this:

Is your knowledge of the global electricity industry current?

I imagine the poor souls who get bombarded with this sort of stuff every day of the week. “Oh look,” they say. “Current. You know, because we’re in the electricity business. How clever!”

My tip: think of the most powerful impact your product or service will have on your prospective customer’s life and talk about that in your headline. Dramatise it, be specific, and make it personal.

The fake Latin definition

You get your designers to create an image of a weird animal with some physical feature linked to whatever you’re selling, property investment advice perhaps. Then you stick a faux scientific caption underneath that reads:

Fig 1. Propertius investmenticus: previously rare specimen now available for just £9.99 a month from Lame-O Publishing

My tip: just because you saw a poster or a corporate ad in a business magazine with one of these doesn’t mean that a) it’s bringing in any business for the advertiser or b) you have to copy it. Leave clichés to people with no imagination. Do something original instead.

The “funny” image

As many of my clients know, I have a fairly fundamentalist approach to advertising imagery…

It. Must. Show. What. You’re. Selling.

Even the Smash Martians (remember them?) could be seen eating the product.

So why do we still get orang utans on motorbikes, zebras with coloured stripes, punks, storms in teacups and the rest of this flabby bunch of no-hopers?

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that showing the product won’t work because either, “everyone knows what it looks like”, or, and far worse, “it’s boring”.

My tip: if you genuinely think the people you want to buy your product will find a picture of it boring, inject some interest in the shot’s composition by including people. Or don’t have any pictures and fill up the space with words.

And I’m telling you this because?

Believe it or not, people don’t buy because you tell them a joke. They buy because you show them how your product helps them in some way. And if you are selling to an international audience, your humour (which almost by definition must be nationally and culturally based) is going to fall flat.

Better to keep a joke book by your desk when you need a chuckle and remember that copywriting is – still – salesmanship in print or on screen.

Categories: Maslen on Marketing.

2 Responses to Why humour doesn’t work

  • Michael Harper
    November 12, 2013

    “Even the Smash Martians (remember them?) could be seen eating the product.” Yes, and they are a famous example of successful humour in advertising, are they not?

  • Andy Maslen
    November 13, 2013

    Good point Michael. The ads were funny. Or at least they were famous for being funny. I guess my point is, did anyone measure or test the effect of that campaign on Smash sales versus another non-funny execution? Remember that the 1970s were the “golden age” of British TV advertising, though coincidentally or not, much of the ad industry was populated by people who would go on to be novelists and film-makers, not run agencies.

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