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Copy Chat: Humor in Advertising

Many of the most memorable advertising campaigns have been humorous. Over the years, countless advertisers have used this strategy to attract customers. Audiences want to be entertained, not subjected to a hard sell. People pay attention to humorous commercials because it makes them comfortable. This makes them let down their guard –leaving them open to be influenced.

The key is making sure the humor is appropriate to both product and customer. The balance between being funny and being a turn-off is difficult to master. Marketers must feel confident that the upside outweighs the down before pursuing this strategy.

If you are a marketer who believes in playing it safe and avoiding risky strategies, it’s best to avoid using humor in your advertising and marketing campaigns.

Here’s why:

A significant portion of your audience simply doesn’t have a sense of humor. You risk losing them right from the start – reducing the number of people who will receive your message.

Also, humor is not universal. It can easily be misunderstood. Many will not get the joke — leaving a portion of your audience confused.

And finally, humor is found insulting by some people. They may interpret your message as a slur — making that part of your audience angry. The risk may not be worth the benefit.

On the other hand…

Humor can be extraordinarily effective. When done right, humor works exceptionally well.

Remember, advertising is about getting attention. A sure fire way to get attention is to use powerful visuals, powerful headlines, and humor.

There are many examples that probably come to your mind in which the humor of an advertising campaign makes you look forward to seeing more of the ads. (Is that a marketer’s dream or what?)

First, lots of people like a good joke or a funny story. It makes them relax and pay attention. It puts them in a good mood, and it creates comfortable atmosphere. The result can be a positive image for your company. It makes your brand more approachable and memorable.

The best products to sell using humor tend to be those that consumers don’t think too much about. Products that are inexpensive, and consumed regularly and purchased frequently, and can be represented without providing a lot of facts – these are opportunities to use humor. Candy, food, alcohol, tobacco and toys/entertainment related products are categories that have the most to gain the most from humor in their campaigns.

Conversely, corporate image and industrial advertising tend to be more serious businesses. Unknown, expensive, or sensitive-issue products are not usually suited to humorous advertising.

Advertising humor also needs to be directed at a specific targeted audience. A sophisticated audience will understand irony, satire, and wordplay, while a younger audience may find slapstick comedy or a cartoon more amusing. The use of “inside jokes” is limited because only the insiders will understand it and that is probably a small audience.

Many advertisers have come to learn a painful and costly lesson: advertising humor can backfire. For example, jokes made at the expense of a specific group, risk alienating them. One must never single out a gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation — but even making fun of regional accents or habits can result in disaster.

Advertising humor also needs to overcome another serious challenge. Everyone has seen a funny TV commercial and enjoyed the joke so thoroughly that the product or service was never noticed or remembered.  Advertising humor must relate directly to the business or products that are being promoted in order to be remembered.

As with humor in general, advertising humor has a short lifespan. The first time we hear a joke we may laugh out loud. After repeated telling, the joke is no longer funny and may become annoying. Humorous ads require to frequent replacement.


Humor in advertising has been shown to improve brand recognition, but does not necessarily improve product recall, message credibility, or buying intentions. In other words, consumers may be familiar with and have good feelings towards a product, but their purchasing decisions are not guaranteed to be affected.

It takes a bold marketer to be funny. If that fits your brand persona – go for it! If you have second thoughts, it may be best to leave the humor for the “other guy” to attempt.

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