The Art of Pitching Comedy to People Who Hate Comedy
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
There were a couple of fans rattling in the small conference room at our offices. The creaky old building with no AC had been a horse stable about 100 years ago. It was the middle of July—a pretty warm day, so you can imagine what that smelled like. I was sitting across from our biggest client, who hadn’t so much as cracked a smile all morning while we reviewed existing campaigns. Our agency had made him millions of dollars, literally increasing his business tenfold through an ultraconservative campaign that had grown stale and less effective. But that was all about to change. We were presenting a new direction for the campaign. Comedy.
I started my presentation by taking the room back to the days of my youth. Running through fields, building tree forts in the woods near my house, and hunting garter snakes. You know, boy stuff. I used to capture snakes and put them in jars so I could study them before setting them free. As far as I knew, garter snakes came in three striped varieties: green, yellow, or the very rare (at least in my neighborhood) red. One hot summer day I had a very successful run of trapping garter snakes. So much so that I filled all my jars and had to start putting snakes in an old cigar box.
When my mom called me in for lunch, of course I took the cigar box into the house for safekeeping—and promptly forgot all about it. My mother was on the phone with one of her girlfriends. Curious, she lifted the lid of an old cigar box that looked out of place in the living room. She screamed hysterically when hundreds of snakes (her version of the story) exploded out of the box. Her friend immediately hung up and contacted the police.
That story finally put a little smile on my client’s face. I explained that my mother still tells the story because of her strong emotional reaction to that experience. A flood of chemicals like adrenaline and dopamine shot through her body and galvanized a neural connection in her brain so strong that it’s lasted to this day. And that’s why, I explained to the client, we were moving away from the tired, tried-and-true, boring campaign that we had been doing and heading in an emotional direction. We were going to make a stronger, lasting impression with comedy. And then I flipped an old cigar box across the table at him.
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Some of the highest-paid people in this business sell, pitch or generally convince clients not only that the creative work is good – but also why it’s going to work. Comedy is a risk for many clients, for a variety of reasons, and overcoming these objections sometimes takes time, patience and being willing to go the extra mile. Take, for example, one of the longest-running and strangest campaigns in advertising’s history.
Dubbed by Adweek and other trade publications as the poster child for Oddvertising, the Skittles Experience the Rainbow campaign pushed the limits of strangeness. The primary consumer for Skittles was (and still is) young males, a notoriously difficult group to reach. Their solution was to concoct ideas so outrageous they demanded attention. See three examples below.
Haven’t we all lamented that if only we had clients that gave us creative freedom, our jobs would be a lot easier? Well, during an interview on the podcast Don’t Get Me Started, the past executive creative director on the storied Skittles campaign, Gerry Graf, revealed that the client initially (and emphatically) rejected the work. It took eight months of dedicated effort to convince them. In the end, what finally turned them around was showing the campaign to teenagers in a shopping mall and recording their reactions. Hear the entire interview here.
Comedy works because it touches an emotion, making a deeper connection in the mind of the viewer. Whether you use data, cite audience research, explain the science of gamma and delta waves cascading through the brain, or videotape some kids outside a Foot Locker, convincing a client that comedy is the right approach is often challenging. My best advice is to give it time. Build trust. And never, ever, ever throw a box of snakes at your client.