Five things the ad world needs to understand about comedy

Five things the ad world needs to understand about comedy

Make ‘em laugh

It’s Super Bowl season – and this year more brands than ever are using their big game spots to try and make us laugh. 

Some of them have even succeeded. 

Some – but not all.

And that’s because the industry – as full to bursting with creativity as it is – still has a thing or two to learn about comedy.

Five key comedy lessons

We’re going to start with the most basic lesson of all...

1. What is a joke?

A “joke” is what you get when you take two things that shouldn’t fit together, and make them fit together – in a way that’s surprising, yet somehow makes perfect logical sense.

And if you’re wondering why I’ve just made such an obvious point – it’s because once we’ve defined what a joke is, it’s much easier to define what it isn’t.

You can’t just mash two “things” together and assume that’ll be funny.

And you can’t just take “Thing A” and declare that it’s actually “Thing B”. You need to connect your two ideas with a perfectly placed twist – far enough away to be surprising, but close enough to remain logical.

That’s how you craft a joke that actually sparks joy.

2. You need to hide the punchline in plain sight.

We laugh when our brains jump the gap between two ideas: they don’t make sense, and then they do, and that moment of realisation is so satisfying that it sparks joy.   

If you ever want to kill a joke – just tell us the punchline at the beginning, and you can be guaranteed it’ll be dead in the water.  

This recent NHS Advert has all the right ingredients – it has taken the problem being solved, exaggerated it to the nth degree, and given it a great tagline (“Take the drama out of minor illnesses. For expert advice, consult your pharmacist.”).

The only problem is each scene ends with someone saying they “need a pharmacist” – so there’s no gap for our brains to jump. No dots to be connected.   

A simple tweak to this script – making sure the dialogue in each scene spoke to the drama of a specific condition, not the top-line concept of "needing a pharmacist" – and this could’ve worked.

3. If you don’t have the jokes on the page, you won’t have the jokes on the day.

It’s really easy to make ads that look funny, sound funny, and smell funny – yet fail to generate anything more than a polite chuckle.

This Pringles ad from 2018 features Saturday Night Live’s master of noises himself Bill Hader – and it should be funny. 

But it’s not.

And then there’s this car crash of an ad from Hyundai – made for this year’s Super Bowl.

Often ads like this happen because the creatives have assumed they can rely on the talent to deliver, and have fallen into the trap of believing that improvisation will make the whole thing “edgier”. Other times it’s the talent themselves insisting they don’t need a script.  

Write one anyway. 

Just in case. 

4. Crack the code, and your content will travel faster, and further, than ever before.

Pay for an ad to reach your target audience – and even if it’s effective at moving them to action, often the advert’s journey ends there. Want more people to see it? It’ll cost you.            

It’s not going to blow your mind to hear me say that people love sharing funny adverts on social – but it might surprise you to see just how much of a difference it can make.   

Watch these two ads – they’re for exactly the same product, released a year apart. One got 138,000 views in just over a year. The other has had almost 18 million in just two months.

No prizes for guessing which one’s which. And ok – so the second ad is clearly glossier, and may well have had a bigger spend to help launch it – but that can’t account for it reaching 128x as many eyeballs.  

Side note: I bet you watched it all the way through. When did you last do that with a four-and-a-half minute advert, eh?!  

Comedy content travels.

5. Brands don’t need to be scared of comedy.

Our earlier examples showcased brands who’d tried to make their adverts funny, and fell short – but they’re the brave few.

Many brands run a mile when you mention the C word – scared they’ll ruin their reputation by accidentally causing offence.             

It’s important to remember: you’re not inviting Ricky Gervais, fresh from the Golden Globes, to live-tweet on your behalf for a day. You have just as much control as you would over any other piece of marketing material.  

Yes – if you start by trying to “be funny”, you’ll come unstuck. 

But if you start with your brand message, come up with fun, funny ways to express it, and make sure any jokes line up neatly with it while painting your brand as the hero – it’s really hard to get it wrong.  

Worst case scenario – you’ll underwhelm.   

And even that’s easy to avoid with the right creatives in your corner.

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