What happened to schmaltz? The sorts of ads in which kids ran and hugged their moms in delirious approval for peanut butter sandwiches or quilted toilet paper -- these used to be the keystones of branding, at least in mom-centric dayparts. What happened to enjoinders to "Bake someone happy?" Or puffy doughboys giggling when poked? Or bottles of fluorescent whitening agents giving mommas the magic?
What happened to schmaltz? And maudlin? And "slice of death"?
Digital happened. Since the advent of digital, the number of brands using humor to deliver their messages has grown markedly. One can only surmise that this is because humor "works." It works at both connecting brands to audiences and at reshaping brand imagery in powerful ways.
Of course, humor doesn't always deliver results for brands. Many have tried to "do" humor and have flopped. Sometimes the jokes get overshadowed by the ferric fist of brand identity. Sometimes we laugh at the ad and forget the brand. And sometimes the humor is gratuitous -- a way to attract attention, but not shaped to serve brand messaging goals.
Humor is hard to do, but perhaps even harder is crafting funny programs and messages that deliver real brand benefits. As we all know, assessing the impact of any creative on brand strength is pretty squishy science. But we can identify creative programs that drove buzz and virality online, and through this identification process attempt to tease out some core principles of brand beneficial humor.
So let's begin, shall we?
Humor is not necessarily universal, and understanding what makes your target laugh is, naturally, a critical consideration when you use humor to reinforce or evolve your brand imagery. Even the broadest comedic concepts have their detractors -- not everyone even liked "I Love Lucy."
Even if much humor were universal, it still might make sense to focus on target-specific laughs, as these reflect an insight that might ultimately aid in honing the best brand image possible. Check out these examples of how target-specific humor really helped deliver for a brand.
Suave and Sprint: In the Motherhood
One of the chronic problems in the ad biz has always been men writing ads for themselves, thinking they were going to resonate with women. The most glaring example in my career was the development of an animatic for drain opener where the drain was left so open that it sucked the entire house down the plug hole.
And what did the research tell us? Women didn't want their houses sucked into the sewer. They like their homes, thank you very much, and found the ad -- which was conceived of, written, art directed, animated, account managed, and approved by men -- irrelevant at best and violent at worst.
The people at Suave and Sprint are clearly much smarter than we were. Their "In the Motherhood" series generates millions of voluntary views, driven by the quality of the stories and the decidedly female POV. By humorizing the daily lives and situations mom faces, "In the Motherhood" rings the bell for brand relevance and fondness.
Command and Conquer 3: Conquer This Life
From Draftfcb came this wonderful, completely bizarre viral website for "Command and Conquer 3." I don't understand it, but I do know it received giant traffic and that game sales have been brisk. Game marketing largely boils down to showcasing graphics and gameplay, and this site does that. But it does it in a way that clearly resonates with core and noncore strategy gamers alike.
So much of advertising is about tapping into the conventional wisdom, and as a result, advertising imagery has become just as much a core element of our culture as is going to church on Easter Sunday, trick-or-treating on Halloween, or seeing an action flick on Fourth of July weekend.
In my view, visual humor is much more likely to work in digital environments than verbal humor -- although words definitely bring the point home once visuals have grabbed the eyeballs. Because online is a scanned medium, telegraphic imagery can offer the stopping power necessary to grab consumer attention. Words do matter, but the challenge of word-driven humor is that it is hard to "get" when scanned, and indeed hard for many people to "get" at all.
Slapstick and physical comedy are forms of visual humor that helped give TV its start, and making the joke visual has been a critical part of humor that works for brands online
Smirnoff: Tea Partay
How do you make a tea-flavored alcohol beverage relevant to young people? And do it without seeming like a company trying too hard to make tea relevant to the younger set? Smirnoff Raw Tea's P-Unit uses the refined, stuffy, irrelevant essence of the brand equity of "tea" to make the Raw Tea offering supremely relevant.
After seeing this image of the butt shot in white chinos, straight out of The Talbots (a move I call the Lil' Kim-berly), what man could resist sending this vid to all 297 of his Bebo friends?
Carlton Draught: Flashbeer
Here the visual humor is using the iconic imagery of the "tairedest" American movie and the physical consequences of drinking lots of tasty Australian beer. It's all leveraged to connect with users, demonstrate the greatness of Carlton, and show how much the brand should mean to you.
Durex: 100 Million Reasons
If asked to think of condom imagery, many people would conjure steamy silhouettes on condom packages or something extremely explicit. The problem is, sexuality is so prevalent online that it would be challenging to find prurient imagery to support a brand. Add to that the different senses of what men versus women find "hot," and it's easy to see why a condom brand would turn to humor to capture and hold attention.
This video of a man and his "boys" has the sort of stopping power that keeps people talking about it years after it hit the Diggosphere. I remember getting a link to this from about a dozen people -- men and women both.
Yes, one could certainly say that it doesn't say a whole heck of a lot about what makes Durex different, but sometimes all we have is imagery to differentiate us. And seriously, what are they going to talk about? Ribs for her pleasure?
Often, teams view creative constraints as barriers to great ideas. And they can be at times. But they can also be ways to create humor in service to building and changing brand perceptions. Surprise and redirection are, of course, two of the keystones of funny (at least American style). By challenging the creative constraints online, brands can truly deliver chuckles.
Wario Land: Shake It!
Wii has transformed the gaming business. This is a viral site for the Wii title "Wario Land," where the key difference was the addition of shaking the controller in an otherwise telegraphic side scroller. The difference really came to life in this powerful and funny destruction of the rules about how web pages work.
Check out the brand's execution to see how breaking the rules of how online and, in particular, online advertising works to really dramatize what's special about this title.
Apple: New York Times ads
Banners occupy clearly defined spaces -- largely ignorable on pages. That's how many consumers see them. But by flowing messages together, and using the look and feel of the content on the page to enhance their presence, Apple drives home the conventional wisdom about Microsoft Vista.
Consumers appear to have a much higher level of tolerance for edgy content when it's online. A big factor in this is that we can more accurately pinpoint target segments and deliver messages attuned to their particular tolerances, rather than the limited tolerance of the most conservative members of society.
Caterer.com: Little Gordon
Gordon Ramsay has created a powerful personal brand among foodies and through his four-letter-centric approach to running restaurants. A jobs website for hospitality employees was very successful in using the Ramsay brand to connect with restaurant insiders. First, see a clip of expletive-hurling Gordon Ramsay, then one of the viral messages created for Caterer.com:
Who would expect the following message to come from the company that also makes Ivory Snow? But while such a message might have driven a backlash on TV (at least in the U.S.), it drives a lot of viral dissemination online. What better way to connect with the sophomoric in (many of) us?
What's interesting here is that this is one of the relatively few examples I know of in which an audio joke has really viralled well.
Anyone who has been on the internet for more than a few days knows that the range of opinion online is much broader and more direct than in other media. What's funny to many of us is when enormous megacorps start sending around cease-and-desist letters to 15-year-olds with blogs that nine people read a month.
"Dear Mickey: Your blog Mickey's Place and the mention of a rodent in your post of Sept. 9 is a clear infringement on our trademarks..."
Alternatively, if they address an attack with humor, they are better able to defend themselves while bringing the online audience to their side.
Paris Hilton brand: The Old Guy
McCain-Palin attacked Obama by associating him with Paris Hilton. In the process, the hotel heiress's personal brand suffered. The ads made her seem too shallow. (????)
But Paris and her PR organization squashed the GOP like a bug with this online-only video that made us celebrate and actually root for la femme du empty. First the ad:
Now check out the response from Paris here.
Levi's: Unbutton Your Beast
Levi's understands that 501s are a little dirty, though dirty in a "good" way. They constantly offend conservative groups with groin-centric messaging and don't care a whit about the angst they cause. In fact, their quite funny mini-site, "Unbutton Your Beast," seems to bait it. The video below is the result of their personalization engine, which allows you to choose a phallic avatar and deliver a message to friends.
One in three Americans may be a conservative evangelical Christians, but the viral users of this site are certainly telling the world that they are not in this population.
Because of the two-way nature of the web, user-generated content (UGC) is powerful currency online, and UGC on behalf of brands can be quite powerful in enhancing and evolving brand perceptions. Combine that power with humor, and a brand can make enormous strides in growing relevance and purchase intent.
The additional advantage of asking users to bring the funny is that there is a greater likelihood that the humor of the message will actually resonate. Humor is difficult to do, and empowering a flock of users to take their stab at it means that your brand has more chances to be more vivid to your target.
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