Why Hiring Comedians Is a High-Stakes Gamble for Brands
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
I was fast asleep on a bed of saddle blankets in a barn in East Texas. The night before I’d winged halfway across the country on the red-eye to direct a commercial, and I was seriously in need of some shut-eye. Before dozing off I eyeballed the first couple shots with my production team and gave the producer express instructions to wake me up before the talent arrived. I’d never met the man, and I didn’t want him to find me curled up in a corner of the barn like a hobo.
Unfortunately, I woke up with the largest man in the world standing right over me. He was a bourbon-skinned hulk with a shaved head and an ax in his hand. It was George Foreman. He’d just finished chopping down a few trees on the ranch as part of his morning workout. His giant paw swallowed mine when we shook hands, making me feel like a child. I remember wondered: How did Muhammad Ali not die after being hit by a man this strong?
The producer wouldn’t make direct eye contact with me the rest of the day, but George (I called him Champ) was an absolute gentleman, totally charming and a true professional, lighting up like a thousand-watt bulb every take. He was the perfect celebrity to represent the new product being introduced, the Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine. It went on to sell millions. Why?
Having the right celebrity appear in your marketing campaign can give any brand a decisive advantage over the competition. And when it comes to tapping comedians for your campaign, there are even more pros and cons.
PRO: BUILDS TRUST
Marketers like comedians because people like comedians. They’re eye-catching channel-stoppers who make audiences back away from the remote and take notice. Brands appear more glamorous when they hire well-known comedians or celebrities, and both are likely to boost name recognition for the brand. However, the main distinction is that audiences perceive comedians as more trustworthy than celebrities, spokespeople and commercial actors, because they’re willing to speak the truth. And audiences idolize them for the fact that they’re truth-tellers.
CON: INCREASES THE COST TO CONSUMERS
Flip the channel today and comedians are everywhere in ads. It’s not uncommon for comedians to make more money on endorsement deals than they do on their regular gigs. Everyone knows money has changed hands for their appearance in a campaign, and it’s clear that the talent fees paid for any well-known celebrity increase the price of the product. However, in most cases it’s not slowing down the number of comedians being hired, because it’s not slowing down sales.
PRO: ADDED PRODUCTION VALUES
In exchange for exposure and a pretty good payday, comedians bring natural acting and improv skills, impeccable timing and refined writing chops. So unlike a celebrity who will hit a mark and say the line, comedians bring more than a pretty face. They bring production values.
CON: POSSIBILITY OF SCANDAL
Comedians are human — like any other celebrity — and there’s always the possibility that they might become entangled in some pretty unsavory situations. While the transgressions of Howard Stern and Charlie Sheen only seem to fuel interest, insensitive tweets by Gilbert Gottfried, longtime voice of the AFLAC duck, ultimately cost him his job. There was a day when Bill Cosby was the face of several different Madison Avenue campaigns. Unfortunately, misbehavior by celebrities has to be factored into any endorsement deal.
PRO: TAPPING NEW MARKETS
Comedians help brands expand into new markets. They give them instant credibility with new audiences (the comedian’s fans) because they like and trust the comedian. Can’t get the attention of teens? Hiring comedians is a shrewd tactic to access hard-to-reach markets like teens.
CON: DWARFING THE BRAND
When handled poorly, any celebrity might overshadow the brand. Without brand recall, hiring any celebrity for your campaign is misguided. The campaign needs to use the comedian’s personality to further the goals of the brand, not the other way around.
PRO: INJECTING PERSONALITY
Comedians inject sterile brands with instant personality. Simply through association, personality attributes of the comedian transfer over to the brand. So, in order to stand head-and-shoulders above the competition in a lackluster or stodgy category, a brand could hire a spokesperson who exudes personality — for example, the American Express campaign featuring Tina Fey.
CON: ADDED EXPENSE
Marketers need to consider how much it costs to hire a big-name comedian. Like with any celebrity, it can cost a fair amount of money, and big fees don’t always translate into business success. So many brands are banking on up-and-coming, lesser-known comedians who don’t command top dollar yet. Many comedians realize they don’t need to wait tables. They can make a tidy living in the commercial world while they wait for their big break. And comedians past their prime — especially those associated with a nostalgic time or place — are comparatively affordable.
Thirty years ago the floodgates opened and comedians were welcomed into the advertising world. They were no longer considered a bunch of oddballs, or thought to have only limited, niche appeal. More important, they were viewed as more affordable than Hollywood celebrities and professional athlete endorsers.
And now with the re-emergence of content marketing, and as digital marketing opens up boundless possibilities on the Internet, comedians are a hot property. They’re no longer confined to being the butt of the joke, or barking and pitching copy points in traditional advertising. The hallmark of great content marketing is providing useful or entertaining experiences, so this affords comedians the opportunity to showcase what they do best — you guessed it: entertain.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike