Remember when Old Spice was king? Isaiah Mustafa’s baritone bravado and charm in the “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad generated hundreds of millions of views and become a cultural touchpoint–it was undoubtedly one of the most recognizable, most popular, most talked about piece of advertising in the world at the time. And it was really, really funny.
Released in February 2010, the spot may have been the crest of an advertising comedy wave that began a few years earlier, with ads from brands like Skittles, Snickers, and Starburst delighting both the general public and the ad industry so much it coined the phrase “oddvertising,” to mark the trend among marketers to fly their freak flag for laughs.
It looks increasingly like a culmination of the mass power of funny ads, using the meteoric rise of YouTube to be the most modern version of what funny ads had been doing for decades. From “Where’s the Beef?” to “Wassup,” being funny was the quickest and most effective way for brands to break into pop culture. But as social media grew to become the most dominant force in culture, setting into motion seismic shifts in our behavior and media consumption, so too did it alter the course of advertising humor.
Caveat! As most humans are aware, much of advertising is a waste of time and space that seems almost distinctly designed to give us mind rabies. When I talk about advertising humor, I mean the small percentage of ads that are actually funny. Not the doofus dad jokes, the smirking wife gags, and every other joke cliche many marketers continue to trot out at every commercial opportunity.
As the value of data and strategy increased, along with the number of touch points in which brands could engage with potential consumers, the almighty funny ad appears to have fallen from its throne. Out of the Top 10 ads in USA Today‘s Super Bowl Ad Meter ranking for 2007, nine were comedy-based. This year, that number was five–a marked decline. Meanwhile, the most talked about, most awarded piece of brand communication of the year, State Street Global’s “Fearless Girl,” attracted a cascade of global media attention, but it sure wasn’t funny. Perhaps a dependence on hard data has simply weakened brands’ will to just get weird for laughs. Has comedy lost its influence among advertisers?
More time, fewer laughs
FCB Global chief creative officer Susan Credle says there are a few factors that have likely played a role in the seemingly diminished status of the funny ad. Chief among them, the expansion of time available to advertisers.
“When we were confined to a 15-second or 30-second time limit, comedy was about the best way to go because you didn’t have time to build up a poignant, emotional connection,” says Credle. “It’s very hard to be that emotional in 30 seconds, so we automatically went to comedy because it’s a perfectly tight amount of time to land a joke. The minute we started creating these 60-second or two-minute pieces, we had the time to take viewers on an emotional journey. We can pull you in, make you think, make you feel something. That length of time being expanded opened up the door for emotional advertising in a big way.”
Funny ain’t easy
Barton F. Graf founder and chief creative officer Gerry Graf made his name creating award-winning funny ads for brands like Skittles, FedEx, E-Trade, and more. “There was a good 10-year trend of everyone trying to be funny,” says Graf. “‘Trying’ being the word. Easy comedy is either slapstick or making fun of someone, but I don’t think that plays anymore. We’re definitely in an advertising environment where it is culturally frowned upon to hurt or laugh at other people. Comedy that comes from an insight on society, pointing out things that don’t make sense, calling out inconsistencies, things that just make us laugh at the messed up world we live in, will always be popular. It’s just harder to do so fewer people do it.”
Speaking of scarcity, one of the few high-profile ads that won awards at Cannes Lions this year was Donate Life’s “World’s Biggest Asshole” by The Martin Agency.
Credle agrees with Graf, saying laughter is one of the most difficult things to create. “You need to write it, you need to edit it, to get all the beats right, the heart-rending emotional stuff just isn’t as hard to do,” she says. “And today, at the speed with which we’re creating, many of the things that go viral are more accidents than someone actually writing a piece of humor.”
The ad industry isn’t exactly known for trailblazing, with most marketers following what’s already been successful. Around the same time oddvertising hit its peak, Dove released a spot called “Evolution” that targeted self-image and gender politics. It wasn’t part of a giant media spend or a major campaign launch–it was just a one-off web video out of Ogilvy & Mather’s Toronto office. But it soon exploded to become one of the most viral brand videos of all time. This led Dove, and many others, to continue to push a more emotional, issue-driven message.
Today, in an era where consumer sentiment is informed not just around a brand’s advertising, but increasingly what the company stands for, that has caused many marketers to rush to identify with a social cause, whether it fits the brand image or not. Call it the “Hardcut: Cheetos” effect, born from the now classic Saturday Night Live sketch that hilariously illustrated the kind of commercial contortions some brands make to fit into a social cause.
“We’ve had an unprecedented amount of ‘Hardcut: Cheetos’ from different brands, as they’ve attempted to get on the social justice bandwagon,” says Wieden+Kennedy executive creative director Jason Bagley, who led creative on that famous Old Spice ad. “I think it’s great when a brand can authentically comment on social justice issues in an interesting way, where they’re adding something to the conversation. When it’s not authentic though, people can sniff it out pretty quick.”
Graf says there’s always a hot trend, and the emotional angle seems to be it. “Right now everyone thinks millennials want inspirational, emotional work,” he says. “I’m sure someone wrote a book that all the brand managers read that said emotional stories are where it’s at. So everything is heartfelt. Emotional is also easier for a client to buy.”
Erich+Kallman co-founder Eric Kallman, who also worked on Old Spice at Wieden+Kennedy and with brands like Kayak at Barton F. Graf, says funny is just less risky. “The safest way to execute is probably an emotional way to communicate that strategy,” says Kallman. “I think tying brands to social causes is great, but it seems to be going from something that makes sense for some brands, to young creatives trying to attach everything to a social cause. How do we connect this soda to a social cause?”
The Next Laugh
Director David Shane, a master of short-form comedy ads (as declared here) and director of HBO’s 2014 belly-achingly funny “Awkward Family Viewing” campaign, says perhaps advertising humor is following the rest of pop culture.
“I do think there are fewer overtly funny ads around now than maybe 10 years ago, but I’m cool with it,” says Shane. “And I think it’s true of most areas of pop culture. There’s a weird backlash-y term, the ‘unfunny comedy,’ that’s kind of meant to throw shade on some of my favorite TV shows like Atlanta, Transparent, and Fleabag, but I don’t get the animosity. As long as it’s super watchable and engrossing, I don’t mind trading some laughs for smartly observed ‘slice of life’ moments or pathos or whatever. And the same is true of ads.”
Bagley’s fellow Wieden+Kennedy executive creative director Eric Baldwin, who also was a creative director on the Mustafa Old Spice work, says that while emotional and inspirational work has taken some of the pop culture thunder from funny ads, humor in brand work is as strong and prevalent as ever. “I do think comedy spots have changed quite a bit,” says Baldwin. “We’re coming out of a really strong era of work where maybe strategies were a bit looser. For us, what we’re finding is, the smarter you can be strategically, the more creative doors open for you.”
And therein lies the answer. Perhaps our definition of a funny ad is what needs to be redefined. Why shouldn’t the timely and hilarious soccer jokes on British bookmaker Paddy Power’s Twitter feed, or Taco Bell’s insanely popular Cinco de Mayo Snapchat filter, or whatever the hell you’d call Burger King’s Google Home hack, be considered funny ads? The influence of comedy has changed among brands, but rather than become diluted or diminished, it’s been redistributed to a wider variety of media.
Baldwin points to how his agency took voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and bot technology to make an animatronic Colonel Sanders that takes orders at KFC drive-thrus.
“To use such a smart technology for something so dumb, is one of the best challenges we can have,” says Baldwin. “It was 24 hours of voice recording to synthesize the voice, building the mechanics of the eyeballs and the lift, the voice-to-text tech–it’s all incredibly smart stuff for the dumbest reason. We’ve got all these different things and ways to help us tell jokes in so many different ways than just a 30-second ad.”
His colleague Bagley takes issue with that. “I’d disagree with Baldwin that it was dumb,” he counters. “Fried chicken-based entertainment is the most noble of purposes.”