Eric Silver, whose resume says he once wrote for David Letterman and also includes reference to some ‘slapstick’ work for Miller Lite, has just gone over to DDB as the creative big cheese, replacing Lee Garfinkel, who himself had a fling at stand-up comedy and has his fingerprints all over some light, amusing advertising, including work for Subaru and Pepsi.
Having recently read Ken Roman’s bio of David Ogilvy, (one of my 'must reads in the column at right) this changing of guard started me thinking about the use of humor in advertising, which Ogilvy hated with passion. Perhaps because his medium was print, while funny ads are almost exclusively the province of television and radio, which have been driven from their beginnings by entertainment.
While I love a good laugh I approach the subject of funny ads with trepidation.
Humor is a dangerous weapon in the hands of creative people - not unlike an AK-7 in the hands of a 10-year-old. It can polarize an audience (believe it or not, some people don’t think Groucho is funny!). Often it gains attention at the expense of what’s being advertised. Friend Julie, a bundle of laughs in her own right, said when I asked her, “I love funny commercials but rarely remember what the product is.” That’s the problem.
And in truth, a lot of stuff that’s supposed to send you giggling all the way to the check-out counter is just lame. Being funny takes extraordinary talent and is desperately hard work. There’s a reason Jack Benny had writers.
We once hired John Cleese (Basil Fawlty, above) to do a radio campaign for Callard & Bowser candy. John is serious about his nutso comedy – a and thoughtful person. On top of that, he is a delight to work with if you play by the rules, and he made the rules quite clear He was ready and willing to receive all the marketing wisdom we could supply. “But please don’t try to tell me what’s funny”, he said. The spots turned out to be a huge hit. Leaving ‘funny’ to the pros is a big idea.
Steve Martin, and SNL aside, America doesn’t have a well-developed funny bone, either. The Brits do humor in advertising so much better than we do. Ditto the Aussies, Kiwi’s, and Scandinavians, etc. Years ago I played a reel of humorous spots from around the world for a seminar I was teaching at Michigan State. The class loved the commercials. The more outrageous they were, the more the kids laughed. But when I asked them why we don’t produce work of that caliber in America they said “we’re actually a pretty conservative country”. The work made them laugh but culturally it made them uncomfortable. I suspect the funny stuff works better on the coasts than in the interior.
The Tramp commercials we did for IBM taught me another lesson about humor. The spots were big productions that put Billy Scudder, who played the Tramp, into situations where the PC always saved his bacon. Corny as these little play-lets were, people loved them. They liked them so much that when we researched the spots viewers actually played back copy points that weren’t even in the mentioned in the commercials.
Julie’s brother Brian, who makes funny radio spots for a living put it another way. “A funny spot can make you laugh many times, so when you hear the advertising message, you get a laugh. That makes listeners feel good about the advertiser and makes them more open to the product or service being sold... I'm more open to (humorous spots) than someone who is beating their chest and talking about how great they are.”
The real power of humor in advertising is that it lowers the audiences’ defenses and humanizes big faceless companies. The unspoken message is “we don’t take ourselves too seriously around here – we’re regular fellas just like you”. The stiff collar, authoritarian voice that’s told us to color inside the lines all our lives is silenced.
Bottom line: if you can laugh at yourself and avoid getting lost looking for laughs, you could make some friends and grab some market share. Ogilvy might disagree, but I think that Bernbach and friends would be in my corner.