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Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

Few People Really Understand Why Comedy Sells

Comedy Writing

Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise...

When he laughed, his small, cramped office physically shook. He was a rather rotund gent, lightly dusted with pizza-dough flour. Oh, and he was definitely a snorter. His laughing fit slowly crescendoed into a hacking cough and desktop-slapping.

I sat across from the owner of a local pizza chain while he finished listening to a radio commercial I had produced with my own money. There was little doubt he thought it was funny. But after I asked for his thoughts, his smile disappeared. He responded with a stark, “How much?”

I was trying to sell him a spec spot introducing a new pie he had recently added to their menu: The Firestarter. The concept was Satan completing a dating site questionnaire. I wrote it as part of a class I was taking at Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts. I had called in a few favors and gotten the spot produced, hoping to jump-start my advertising career. But I could see in the cold, dead eyes of the businessman that he was never gonna buy it. And sure enough, after he heard the price – hardly enough to cover the talent fee – he shook his head and proclaimed, “Humor doesn’t sell.”

Within a matter of seconds, the pizzeria owner had touched on the two questions I’ve been asked the most throughout my career: what does it cost, and does comedy really sell? The answer to the first question is usually a number, and the second, a story. In general, decision-makers love numbers and hate stories. So, I’ve learned over time to include a lot of facts and figures in the story of why comedy sells.

Evolution Made Us this Way

There are countless studies on humor’s effect on consumers and why it has a deeper impact on the brain. For example, research shows that laughter causes endorphins to be released into the blood stream, as well as other chemical reactions that produce euphoric effects similar to mood-altering drugs. Sign me up for some of that advertising! Some go so far as to call humor addictive.

In a famous Ted Talk by Dan Dennett, he explores why we respond to certain triggers like cute, sexy, sweet and funny.

Why Successful Marketers Believe in Humor

There are more than scientific explanations. Many marketers believe humor plays a key role in forming a positive relationship with consumers. People buy from people they like. And if they like your brand, you’re that much closer to a sale.

Many marketers use humor in their advertising because the first step of any conversion process is to make people pay attention. And nothing attracts attention like comedy.

Lastly, every marketer wants their message to stick in people’s heads. And there’s a lot of scientific evidence that points to laughter as a way to chemically bond a message in consumers’ brains. There’s an entire industry around this study, called Neuromarketing.

You Can’t Argue with Science

Researchers monitoring the brain activity of people laughing see the areas regulating pleasure and rewards activate. Neuroscience suggests our brains focus attention on things that were previously associated with a good or bad experience. Faced with the evidence, it’s not surprising marketers believe in humor as a means to get attention. Our brains reward us for it.

Also, researchers found that when people are laughing there’s increased activity in the hippocampus, known for the creation of memories. Planting in people’s minds a positive memory associated with the brand is the ultimate goal of any marketer. So designing your advertising with an emotional charge (like with humor) is paramount in establishing a memory.

Comedy is Risky

So as you can see, there are many of reasons marketers use humor in advertising, but there are obvious risks. Funny is hard. It’s cheaper to bark out a laundry list of copy points. (Sad trombone.) And there’s always the possibility that the joke overwhelms the brand, distracting consumers so much they don’t remember the brand or the message.

So, Does Comedy Sell?

The fallacy in this question is that direct response is the only advertising that takes consumers all the way from awareness to a sale in one ad. When a client asks a naive question like that, what they’re saying is they want an infomercial. Or, to be fair, they’re ready to close. They want to buy one commercial, not a process. They’re lathered up to propose on the first date, while you’re arguing for introducing yourself first. It’s a huge disconnect.

Ring! Ring! It’s the 1990s, and they want their marketing plan back.

Most advertising campaigns pick a part of the marketing funnel and focus on guiding consumers to the next step of conversion. There’s a process to it. Every step has a different objective. These earlier steps condition the consumer to be receptive to the sales pitch that comes later.

But many clients want one ad to do it all. And most obsess over the last click, or any number they can directly attribute to the sale. But without broad awareness, only the most determined consumers will ever find you. So if you want more clicks or sales, you need a campaign focused on reaching more people. Humor does that. It doesn’t do it all. The last attribution is never going to be associated with comedy. But the first attribution should be… because comedy has a deeper and more lasting impact.

Them’s Fightin’ Words!

Here’s what I’ve found in my career: If a client proclaims that comedy doesn’t sell, abandon ship. All hands to the life rafts! They’re a nonbeliever. The effort you’ll need to convince a proud person they’re wrong is counterproductive.

Being right isn’t the point. Pitch something else that’s creative but not necessarily funny. Because even with all the research, case studies, facts and inherent evidence, they’ll never come around. And even if they begrudgingly green-light the funny concept, they’ll probably spend the rest of the process shoehorning in ideas, attempting to inject a little more “sell.”

Run away. Run as fast as your little feet can carry you.

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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