Creating Comedic Characters That Can Sell Anything: Part I
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
The senior copywriter rolled his eyes, expressing complete disdain for my answer, the idiot who let me in the building and my very existence. I was standing in the middle of a large advertising agency—the Seattle office of one of the largest holding companies in the world. Out the windows I could have seen all of Elliot Bay, except my view was blocked by the wave upon wave of hands snapping in the air like they were spring-loaded. It was the very early days of Twitter, and I had been asked to talk to the staff about how this new thing called social media could be used for advertising. There were lots of questions. And even more skeptics.
When I explained that their agency should come up with a unique perspective for their Twitter account, a room of very creative people went silent. Then someone interjected that most of their work is under NDA and thus couldn’t be discussed publicly. I spotted a dog in the back of the room, rooting through a wastepaper basket. I shouted out, “How about the agency dog? He doesn’t really know what’s going on. All he knows is some inconsiderate bastard threw out a perfectly delicious piece of pizza crust after the all-nighter everyone just finished.” The line got a couple chuckles. Then the senior copywriter weighed in.
He countered, “And how long could you keep that up, tweeting like a dog?” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, if you create a well-rounded character… forever.” His eyes rolled back in his head like a teenager after you mispronounce the name of their favorite band. Of course, he was right. He was a much wiser, talented and more accomplished writer than I was. By the time I stopped tweeting as Scraps, the dog at the advertising agency, I was only able to eke out a mere 13,351 tweets over six years, which generated thousands of followers. So, far short of forever.
I had been asked to speak at the agency because at the time I was personally coaching marketing directors at Microsoft, Starbucks and Sony about social media marketing. And although I was able to explain how Twitter worked to my clients, the little light bulb wasn’t crackling to life over their heads.
That’s when I decided to create a Twitter account specifically to showcase the different ways brands could use Twitter for marketing. I created the character Scraps (named for both a short piece of information and his inclination to tussle), and he quickly became so popular that he organically garnered thousands of followers in the marketing and advertising communities within months. Find the archive of Scraps’ tweets @FamilySeattle.
The following is a primer on creating comedic characters so good, they’ll write the jokes for you.
Create characters with a unique comedic perspective on the world. Make them see every situation through their warped sensibilities. The exaggeration of reality is the difference between drama and comedy. An exaggerated perspective flips everything from the real world into the comedic world, like in this Friskies campaign, Dear Kitten.
Characters always make good choices – from their point of view – and that’s what makes them funny. Invent a traumatic event in their life that gave the character their unique sensibilities. The audience doesn’t need to understand the backstory, but the writer, actor and director should know what’s driven the character to this obvious perspective. In the Mayhem campaign from Allstate, the explanation for his actions is simple: He’s mayhem, and that’s all the audience really needs to know.
Next is a two-parter.
Traits or flaws are required to create an emotional distance between a comedic character and reality. This distance is one of the reasons we laugh. For example, physical flaws in a clown create distance, as do traits in characters like greed, selfishness or ignorance.
The second part draws the character back to the audience by giving them humanity, making them sympathetic (I know that guy) or empathetic (I am that guy). If the character is terribly flawed, the fastest way to give them humanity is to surround them with fools or a world that has turned on them.
A good example of this duality is the main character in any spot for the Snickers campaign You’re Not You. The flaw is that the person is irritable (personified by a celebrity, moving the character even further from themselves and the audience) when they get hungry. The humanity is that everyone has experienced being unreasonable – or knows someone who has been unreasonable – when they’re hungry.
The single dominant trait or flaw in the protagonist dictates the characteristics of all the other characters. Draw all the minor characters in conflict with the protagonist. All characters need to be in conflict with each other as well. Let the minor characters weigh the pros and cons of the situation for the protagonist. We don’t need to agree with the characters; we only need to understand their objectives – e.g., what drives them? What’s their agenda? If you have two characters that are similar or agree with each other, cut one of them out.
Even ensemble characters need to clash with one another. Give them different points of view. Make sure someone is having fun and someone is having a terrible time, as in this example from FedEx, “Hot Shots.”
While creating an ensemble cast, look ahead to the common enemy the ensemble will battle. Decide which characters will be best for comedic impact.
Consider whether the character should be a man or a woman. A female character could intensify a situation; a woman at risk is more intense than a man at risk, whereas having children at risk ratchets up the intensity even more.
Give your characters different voices. If one is witty, keep their dialogue consistently sparkling and make other characters’ more clinical in tone.
Women build rapport while talking; men report. Reverse these two speaking styles for a more interesting dialogue – or, as in this example, a more interesting character for JBS Men’s Underwear.
Next week we’ll take a deeper dive into creating memorable characters in advertising, including three-dimensional characters and character keys.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Read part two, "Creating Comedic Characters That Can Sell Anything."