How Comedy in Advertising has Changed over Time
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
I was wrapping studio cables as fast as humanly possible. Once you’ve mastered the basic Jiu Jitsu of wrapping the cable over and then under, you've pretty much got it licked. The two senior floor directors – a couple of real clowns – had concocted a cable-wrapping competition for the interns so they didn’t have to dirty their hands with the cables after the newscasts. It was my first day interning at a local television station, and I was determined to impress.
Sure, it felt like Tom Sawyer was trying to hoodwink us into whitewashing a fence, but it gave Chris and Bob, the two floor directors, a chance to sit back and tell jokes. Terrible jokes. Hilarious jokes. Endless jokes. At one point, Chris threw out a pun. Bob came over the top with another pun. This went on for – I’m not kidding – at least 10 minutes. Not high humor, but impressive nonetheless. Listening to those two volley jokes back and forth day after day while I wrapped cables was the highlight of my internship.
Chris Wedes and Bob Newman were better known as J.P. Patches and Gertrude from The J.P. Patches Show, one of the longest-running locally produced children's television programs in the country. Their humor appealed to both kids and parents alike, but the show was eventually replaced – like most children’s shows across the country – with morning news. It was a different time. Tastes were changing.
Comedy is constantly evolving. Many vaudeville performers found early success on an emerging technology called radio, and then later faded into obscurity. Performances by early pioneers of film and television are tame, almost contrived, by today’s standards. Their humor is still appealing and appreciated by comedy aficionados but doesn’t have the same impact with modern audiences. Tastes change.
Advertising rarely creates comedy trends. It follows trends in film and television. Below is a (very incomplete) list of popular comedians from different eras, to help illustrate how comedic styles have changed.
There are obvious exceptions, but earlier comedians used the classic structure of setup and punch line. Their material was original, impeccable and well performed. Legends like Milton Berle, Jack Benny and George Burns evolved from sketch comedy into situational comedy – not to mention Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. However, they all slowly lost favor as more modern styles became popular.
A new generation storytellers emerged, like Mel Brooks and Bob Newhart. Voices of the counter-culture like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce found an audience. Odd personalities like Andy Kaufman, Gene Wilder and Robin Williams rose to prominence. And later the observational humor of Jerry Seinfeld came into vogue. It’s clear that the comedy of Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock was not the humor of Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson, though they were all great comedians in their own way. Jon Stewart and Dennis Miller were not the style of Johnny Carson or Chevy Chase, though they were all great commentators on social and political affairs.
Some things changed, and others will never go out of style. There was, is and always will be room for great physical comedians and clowns like Jerry Lewis, John Belushi, Adam Sandler, Melissa McCarthy and Will Ferrell. Preceding them were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the silent film era. Certain comedy styles have broad appeal and will always be embraced by audiences.
But the humor of even 20 years ago is beginning to feel a lot like your father’s comedy – not to say it’s not funny. It’s just different. Contemporary comedians like Louis C.K., Amy Schumer and Zach Galifianakis are willing to do and say things that comedians just a few years ago shied away from for fear of backlash. And modern advertising has followed suit. It’s become odder, more visual, less structured and willing to explore themes rather than punch lines.
The following are examples of the recent evolution of comedy in advertising.
Shortly after Jon Heder played Napoleon Dynamite in 2004, we started seeing actors mimicking this character’s same awkward comedic style, like in this commercial from Burger King, “You Copied My Whopper?”
For years the über-odd “Taste the Rainbow” campaign had been successful for Skittles. So in 2007 Starburst released a commercial every bit as weird, “Berries and Cream,” featuring an excited young lad. Many adults scratched their heads, but it was a viral sensation with teenagers on the web.
By 2008 films by directors like Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers featuring sophomoric hijinks had become mainstream. And advertising began wading into similar themes where brands of an earlier era would have feared to tread, like in this example for Sam Houston Race Park, “Restroom Race.”
In 2009 absurdity leveled up (or quite possibly down) in this Skof commercial titled “Pong Pong.”
Many viewed Old Spice as their grandfather’s brand, until in 2010 they released this commercial, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” Transporting us from fantasy to fantasy at a machine-gun pace was visually intriguing, but the unexpected topper at the end, “I’m on a horse,” is what made everyone smile.
In the following year, Living Social’s Super Bowl commercial portrayed characters most brands were avoiding. But generational tastes were changing, and comedy in advertising was reflecting those cultural changes.
In 2013 Cadbury released the commercial “Eyebrow Dance,” which made eyebrows hilarious. It relied more on the comedic situation and outrageous interpretation than a comedic structure like a setup and punch line.
And, finally, in 2016 Taco Bell released “Texas Law Hawk,” featuring a screaming attorney, Bryan Wilson. He’s definitely not doing Henny Youngman one-liners, but he had people all over the country wondering, “Who is this man, and why is he screaming about Quesalupas?” See more of his commercials here.
I won the intern cable-wrapping competition my very first day, and plenty of other days thereafter. And though I haven’t wrapped a cable in years, I feel like I still could – pretty quickly, if need be. But I see fewer and fewer cables on my sets. More and more wireless devices are replacing them. Times change. Things evolve.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Want to know more about oddertising? Read, "And Then Advertising Got Weird..."