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Why Comedy Always Dominates Top 10 Advertising Lists


Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise

It was back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and commercials were shot on 35mm film. Day two of overnight shooting. Everyone was a little groggy. We had a hilarious script, but after a couple of takes, no one was laughing. The client demanded to know why one line was so funny the night before, but wasn’t now. I’m not sure why I couldn’t stop laughing except that overnight shoots really mess with my body clock. I calmed down, whispered into the actor’s ear, and voila! The joke worked again.

The funny thing about funny advertising is that it knows its job: to be funny. Leave it to other campaigns in the marketing funnel to explain all the features, benefits and other selling points. The job of comedy entails one thing and one thing only – the toughest job of all: grabbing the attention of consumers. And that’s why comedy is the most effective form of advertising: It earns attention.

Let’s face it; if you’re in advertising, you’re in the attention business. Consumers give attention in exchange for something valuable, so if the ad is funny, half the battle is already won. It breaks through the clutter. And that’s the reason funny commercials make best-advertising lists every year. Oh, and for the record, the other half of the battle is remembering the brand without it being the butt of the joke.

I’ve heard comedy boiled down to two things:

  1. Simply shining a light on a truth that no one is willing to talk about

  2. Telling the story in the right order

I’ve collected thousands of nuggets like these over the years while writing and directing commercials and videos. Whenever the joke stops working, I rummage through my tattered old bag of tricks for the solution. It’s not magic. It’s just finding the right tool for the job. Sometimes the mallet is what you need; other times the monkey wrench is funnier.

What will follow is a series of thoughts on humor in advertising: how it works, why it works, and how to make it work when it doesn’t work. It should be a gas!

So what did I whisper in the actor’s ear? We were matching a shot from the night before, so for continuity, all we needed was the punch line and the actor to turn before starting his new line. Even though the client knew the joke, without hearing the setup, the punch line wasn’t funny. Without the setup, no one gets the joke. There’s a rhythm. It’s a promise made to the audience. It’s the bones of the joke. I told the actor to start from the setup.

I’ve been handed a lot of funny scripts that had really weak setups. It’s lazy writing. So if I’m directing, I work the script to mine every ounce of humor I can. A strong setup can make a spot twice as funny. Okay, I have no real data to back that up. But here’s a simple example.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a bar. That’s a decent setup. A lot of comedy plays against the anticipated structure. If a priest, a rabbi, and a monk walk into a bar, well, that just isn’t as funny. In the original setup we started with two religious leaders in order to take you down a path, and then steered it in a different direction. Here’s a simpler way to think about it. If I say, “one,” then “two,” the next thing you’ll expect is the number three. What’s funny is if I say, “One, two, four.” What’s funnier is if I say, “One, two, banana.” It plays against the structure. How far you go comes down to the audience, and, of course, your client.

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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike

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