top of page
Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

The Best and Worst Advice on Writing Funny Commercials

Marketing Strategy

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

I was standing in the middle of the Harvard Exit movie theater as the crew rigged for the day. A potential new client was along for the ride as I searched for the director – a fun-loving, amiable chap. The music video we were shooting was written by author Tim Robbins and starred actress Debra Winger. After we found the director, he gave me some of the best advice of my entire career.

His head spun around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and he said, “GET! OUT!”

First of all, he was pissed. Second of all, he was pretty hung over. And third of all, he was pissed. His star was an hour and a half late for make-up. She was a wreck. Everyone was in “a mood.” This was clearly not the time to parade a heavy metal band around the set. Before slipping out, I got the skinny from the hairdresser who had just been fired.


The night before, Tim had invited us down for a few too many rounds of Ballard Bitters, at the time one of the best craft brews in the country. The rest of the story involved late-night room service at the Sorrento Hotel, an empty bottle of sake and Debra falling asleep in her wardrobe for the next day. I wasn’t there for the last part of that story, but all the pieces added up.

It was easy to accept the director's advice.

But if you’re looking for copywriting advice, it becomes a little more challenging. For example, do you bed in the camp of this time-honored rule? If it gets a laugh, leave it in the script. Comedy is so hard to get right. And we’re trying to produce an emotional response. Right or wrong?

Actually, this is some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard. Here’s why.

So You Wanna Write Advertising

If you want a professional career using humor to create successful advertising, you need to thread the eye of the needle. The joke needs to be funny and reinforce the key message. You see, the message calls the customer to act, not the joke. Subverting the message with a laugh – no matter how funny – is the quickest path to the bread lines.

Nobody Said it was Easy

Sure, the method I just described is a million times harder. No one ever said this business was easy, even though most people think so. So let me explain it another way: Never overshadow the message. It’s referred to as the “vampire effect,” sucking away the critical part of the ad.

You need to make it funny AND reinforce the message. The simplest way I know to do this is to consider many funny concepts. Choose the funny concept that works with the message; otherwise you’re working against the message.

It’s Gotta Be More Than a Joke

A study was done a little while back on humorous commercials. “Funny ads drive… great advertising attributes such as attention and likeability. However, low information and relevance on many funny ads result in creating lower desire for the advertising products than non-funny ads.” Such was the conclusion of Ace Metrix in their study of the subject.

In a nutshell, that’s a credible argument to not use comedy. So keep your eye on the prize. Do the hard work. Make sure you’re making an emotional connection with comedy, but also underline the key message in the commercial.

The Best Advice About Humor in Advertising

Now here’s some of the best advice I’ve ever heard about writing comedy for advertising.

Establishing a strong market position with funny advertising is an obvious opportunity for a lot of small and medium-size businesses and start-ups. Think of this as a way to resonate with your audience while separating yourself from your competitors. The big guys are usually too busy chest-thumping to pull a lever like humor, so a smaller business that uses humor stands apart from stodgy corporate giants.

...Meanwhile, Back at the Harvard Exit

The music video was shot and edited, but never saw the light of day. So don’t bother looking for it. But we did sign the heavy metal client for our next project. No famous authors, no A-list movie stars this time and no Ballard Bitters the night before the shoot. Though there was one hell of a wrap party. But that’s another story.

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike


Wanna know more about process of creating funny advertising? Read all about it.

bottom of page