Funny Advertisements

While studying in Milan, I took a course that examined how psychological research can be better applied in marketing products and services more effectively and one particular lecture that caught my attention discussed how humour impacts marketing. After taking some time to let the course material sink in, I’ve realized how important humour is in advertising campaigns today. Just think about the Superbowl commercial phenomenon. Every year, people look forward to the Superbowl, in part, to watch the new commercials that are presented. The ad spots up for grabs during the Superbowl are some of the most expensive to purchase, going for as much as $4 million for a 30 second spot, and it is no coincidence that many brands choose to showcase their product using humour. Here is an example of my favorite Superbowl ad of all time, where a company employees a football linebacker to enforce office rules.

Viewing advertisements is a lot like dating, in that while we watch the ads, we are analyzing it to see if the brand would make a good addition to our lives. When looking for the right partner, often times, people say that they would like a partner that makes them laugh and finds humour in the same things. Companies are always vying for our attention and love, and they too have realized that the key to the customer’s heart is through comedy.

So if humour is a useful tool that can be used in advertising to attract the customer, how does one succeed at making a funny advertising campaign?

Before we can begin to understand how humour can be used successfully to appeal to customers, let’s talk about what humour really is. While there are many theories, the increasingly popular (among scholars) Benign Violation Theory (BVT)  states that something is funny if it threatens one’s sense of how things should be (violation), without being harmful (benign).

Using my office linebacker example above, it is pretty obvious that the violation is the linebacker in an office setting however, deciphering whether the violation is benign may be a little more complex. While some people may find the situation funny because they do not know the people getting tackled and because it is not real, to others, this may be seen as offensive and too violent for some viewers to be watching (along with Terry Tate’s language which may not be considered appropriate). This is where the viewer’s psychological distance to the situation that is unfolding comes into play. The further away the violation is to the viewer, the more benign the situation becomes, whereas the closer the violation to the viewer, the more severe the situation is.

As an example, consider an anvil dropping on a cartoon character’s head, versus an anvil dropping on your head (or you getting tackled by a linebacker in your office). The first situation is very far removed from your life and from real-life in general, therefore can be considered quite benign; yet is still a violation of what is perceived as normal. In the second situation, the violation is not benign at all because it is something very painful happening to you!

Psychological distance also plays a role in how severe the violation can be in order for it to be humourous.  What this means is that the more distant the violation is to you, the more benign it will seem, to the point where it may not even register as a violation at all. Therefore, in order for a situation to be funny, it needs to have a specific psychological distance from the viewer, depending on the gravity of the violation, in order to be a benign violation and hence, funny.



What is interesting to note is that determining whether a situation is a benign violation depends on the viewpoint of the person witnessing the violation. Hence, just as how jokes about “that time in Vegas” are far more successful when told to your friends as opposed to your date, creating a funny ad depends on who the audience is and how you wish to present yourself to them. Therefore the key to making a humourous ad requires depicting a benign violation that not only showcases the value proposition of the brand, but appeals to the specific customer group being targeted with the ad.

A recent example of how humour in an advertisement has successfully applied these concepts is the new FIAT commercial, which shows a young couple purchasing a FIAT that comes with a family of (3) Italians.

This ad displays a situation that is inoffensive, but still quite a departure from what would normally occur when purchasing a vehicle. It highlights the target audience (25-40 year olds) through the purchasers of the vehicle and directly addresses a potential issue of the car being too small, through the deployment of three adult Italians sitting (relatively) comfortably in the back of the automobile, and several subsequent humorous adventures. Finally, the advertisement helps showcase what FIAT hopes its vehicles will be known for: being fun, and stylish.

To sum it all up, humour is a very successful tool that can be used to attract customers to your brand; however in order to successfully execute a funny ad, it must be a benign violation in the eyes of the customer group in which you wish to target, while still having the desired effects of educating customers about what your brand represents. Therefore, unless you think your date would be totally cool with it, while successfully communicating what you, as both a person and a brand represent, do not tell her about that “wedding you had in Vegas with the bartender 20 minutes after you met her” story.



Leave a Reply


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: