What the Funniest Characters in Advertising Have in Common
Why Comedy is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
I was standing in the living room of a house we had rented for a one-day shoot. Alongside me knelt the key grip, cursing, stabbing and poking at our disassembled Fisher dolly. My producer exploded through the front door. Out of breath, she could barely get the words out: “Wrap. We gotta wrap.” She had the same look on her face my kid brother did that time we were throwing a kegger and our folks returned home a day early.
Though we weren’t expecting him for another hour, the homeowner was demanding to get back into his house, and I knew I was headed for overtime. I intercepted him halfway across the garage before he could see what we’d done inside his house. He looked like a drill sergeant, hard enough to have served time in a war, or a prison – and wearing a scowl filched from a Dickens villain.
I offered to buy him dinner, a movie, double the location fee – we needed more time. He explained that he wasn’t hungry, he just saw a movie (that’s why we couldn’t reach him) and he didn’t want more money. He adjusted a wrench on his workbench that was one millimeter askew and announced, “I want back in my house.”
There were miles of cables snaking through his house – upstairs and down – a busted dolly in the living room (the thing that originally threw us behind schedule), and furniture piled like a toppled Jenga tower in the dining room. There was no way I was gonna let him see his house in that condition. I handed him an envelope stuffed with every nickel of our petty cash and told him we were gonna be about an hour late.
We moved the whole circus – broken dolly and all – to the art director’s studio for the remaining shots. With a few props and clever camera angles, we finished the shoot – in triple overtime. And, amazingly enough, after breaking down the dolly and reassembling it at the studio, it worked again. I’ve never seen a crew happier to drive away from a shoot.
THE FORMULA FOR COMEDIC CHARACTERS
When you’re forced to break things down and then put them back together again, it sometimes makes them work better. The same is true for developing comedic characters in advertising – so let’s break down a few of them to see how. Some of the most iconic characters in advertising have these three things in common: flaws, humanity, and a distorted perspective on the world. Understanding how to moderate these will turn your characters from mere jokesters to classics.
Flaws are important to create an emotional distance between the character and the audience. The distance is the reason we laugh. It’s a very human thing to watch others struggle with their preposterous flaws and laugh at them. It puts the audience in a superior position. Physical flaws like those of a clown can create distance, but character flaws are where you find the best jokes. Adding a character trait like greed, selfishness, ignorance, self-importance, etc. creates a deep comedic reservoir to draw from.
At some point in the history of advertising someone assumed that characters need to be likeable. That misguided concept has been recycled by a lot of clients ever since. They don’t. Some of our most beloved characters have serious character flaws. The audience doesn’t need to agree with the character’s agenda. It simply needs to understand the character’s agenda.
The contemporary trend of “un-branding” might provide a real opportunity to draw breakthrough characters. As sponsors find more success with more raw and authentic online marketing, slick and overproduced presentations aimed at “selling” consumers are falling out of favor. Sponsors willing to show the flaws or to un-brand might be more receptive to less-than-perfect characters.
Or you could go the safe, “client-friendly” way. The spokeswoman for Progressive Insurance, Flo, is obsessed with customer service. That’s her flaw: She’ll go to extremes. Trust me, that’s an easy sell to corporate decision-makers: Hey, look! We’ve created a spokesperson who is obsessed with helping our customers.
When you have a flaw that self-serving, you have a lot more work to do. It’s all about balancing the character.
FIND THE HUMANITY
As I mentioned, flaws create distance. Instilling humanity in a character draws the audience back to them emotionally. It makes the character sympathetic (I know that person) or empathetic (I am that person).
One method for instilling humanity is to give the character a trait like loyalty, reliability, integrity, commitment, etc. that makes them more relatable.
Another method is to surround them with fools or more deeply flawed characters, so they look normal in comparison.
This is why Progressive surrounds Flo with deeply flawed characters in their commercials. She appears to be the normal one.
In contrast, the spokeswoman for AT&T, Lily, provides superior customer service, but she’s not obsessed. She’s very likeable. Also, she’s surrounded by mildly absurd characters. It’s all very safe. No big laughs here, because there isn’t anything to elicit a strong reaction. So the difference in Progressive’s and AT&T’s approaches is the difference in balancing flaws with humanity for two different comedic results.
The trick in creating an iconic character is letting one trait win out over the other. It’s never a perfect balance. One will dominate, but great comedic characters clearly possess both.
And now for the accelerant – a distorted perspective.
A COMEDIC PERSPECTIVE
A great comedic character will have a unique way of viewing things. It’s their filter on the world. Since exaggeration is the difference between drama and comedy, the exaggeration of the character’s perspective creates the greatest potential for humor.
A character with a profoundly warped perspective will be funny in the real world.
A normal character in a warped reality will also be funny.
A warped character in a warped reality is a cartoon.
The more committed a character is to their worldview, the harder they’ll fight. Characters that will stop at nothing to achieve their goal also become more cartoonish. But sometimes that’s very funny – for example, the Foster Farms chickens or Star-Kist’s Charlie the Tuna.
The proper weighting of exaggeration and reality creates the funniest comedic perspectives. Add a self-sabotaging flaw and a little humanity and you have a well-rounded character that can stand the test of time.
And then, finally, you need to make them struggle. Comedy emerges from the struggle to be human. Sometimes we’re misled. Other times we mislead ourselves. But we continue to struggle on, doing our best. We root for characters that strive to meet their goals. We see ourselves – for all their flaws – in these characters, and we forgive them because, after all, we’re only human.
Below are examples of comedic characters from classic advertising campaigns. Your homework assignment is to identify the character’s flaw, humanity and comedic perspective. I’ll do the first few to get you started.
GEICO INSURANCE, Caveman
Flaw: He is hypersensitive to the idea he’s not smart.
Humanity: He craves acceptance.
Perspective: He’s a caveman struggling against stereotypes in the modern world.
ISUZU, Joe Isuzu
Flaw: He has an overinflated sense of superiority.
Humanity: We’ve all told a lie before. Maybe not like Joe, but we all lie.
Perspective: He thinks you’ll believe anything.
WENDY’S, Where’s the Beef Lady
Flaw: She has no filter.
Humanity: She’s hungry. She’s getting ripped off.
Perspective: She’s completely indignant over a hamburger.
DOS EQUIS, The Most Interesting Man in the World
Flaw: His flaw is that he has no flaw. He’s unrealistically perfect.
Humanity: They cast an older gentleman. An authoritative narrator explains his exploits so the character doesn’t come off as bragging about himself.
Perspective: The impossible is ordinary for him.
JACK IN THE BOX, Jack
MAYTAG, Lonely Repairman
ALLSTATE INSURANCE, Mayhem
BARTLES & JAYMES WINE COOLERS, Bartles and Jaymes
OCEAN SPRAY CRANBERRY JUICE, Farmers
APPLE, The Mac Guy or The Microsoft Guy
Advertising agencies are great at writing situations. That’s what they do. Concepts. But they aren’t often asked to create characters. Many have proved that creating mundane, mildly amusing or manic characters in a clever situation sometimes leads to long-running campaigns, but not often. Fashion great characters from the beginning and your campaign will have every opportunity to be timeless.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.
Wanna know more about creating comedic characters? Read "Creating Comedic Characters That Can Sell Anything."