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When "funny" goes right (and wrong) for a brand

When "funny" goes right (and wrong) for a brand Michael Estrin

Warning! The video below may, or may not, be safe for work, and depending on your particular funny bone, it may or may not be humorous.

Did you laugh at this DDB ad for Bud Light Lime? Ad Age's Jeremy Mullman didn't. In a harsh but fair critique, Mullman mocked the ad's attempt at -- but failure to achieve -- edginess. And even for those who did laugh, Mullman's takeaway -- "if you like anal sex, this Bud's for you" -- certainly isn't the message Anheuser-Busch was going for.

But if Mullman were a 22-year-old frat boy, he might feel differently. He may have laughed. He may have bought a case of the stuff when out with his friends at the liquor store, and -- cue the brand/marketer dream sequence -- each of those frat boys may have been repeating variations of the ad's many double-entendres.

I gave it to my boss in the can.

I'm gonna get it in the can in about five minutes.

I never thought I'd enjoy getting it in the can as much as I do.

It's been a decade since I last hung out with frat boys, so I can't really say if the ad effectively reached its target audience, although judging from the low number of views on YouTube, a small advertising industry backlash, and an official "no comment" from A-B, it's safe to say the joke didn't go over well.

Still, I laughed. Maybe I'm juvenile or crude, but I laughed. Not out loud. Not LMAO. And certainly not LMAOROTF. But I did chuckle. So at least someone, somewhere thought the ad was funny.

But funny isn't good enough, because when you're using humor in your ads, funny is just the threshold. And no matter how much the ad makes you laugh, it has to be right for your brand. Of course, doing that is an art, which is why I asked these agencies to talk about some of their more recent funnies.

These days, there's nothing funny going on in automotive. But that didn't stop Organic from creating a humorous campaign featuring an over-zealous park ranger character who grills Jeep owners about why they love their Jeeps.

So what made the campaign work?

"Something about the 'schtick' needs to be true and authentic to the brand," says Katie Bolen, Organic's director for engagement management. "In our case, the Urban Ranger represents the legacy and authenticity of the Jeep brand -- the Jeep Wrangler mentality. He is the real deal: a big, irreverent Boy Scout. Born to live and roam in nature, our Jeep Urban Ranger was a preverbal fish-out-of-water when he was 'relocated' to the city and shocked to learn that Jeep owners use their vehicles for purposes other than 4x4 driving. We relied heavily on the juxtaposition between 4x4 versus street driving."

But beyond connecting brand values with the comedic impact, Bolen also says humor may have been the right choice at the right time because a difficult economic picture often means that people really need a laugh.

"In sour times, when you're feeling blue, laughter is the ultimate antidote -- it's a type of escapism," Bolen says. "Brands might use the humor angle because it's warm, personable, and memorable. So, given today's economy, perhaps you shouldn't take yourself too seriously."

How do you shock and amuse a young, male target demo that is best described as a cult-like band of adrenaline junkies? Well, if you're Dimitry Ioffe, CEO of The Visionaire Group, you dare them to do something wild, laugh-worthy, and maybe even a little bit controversial. At least, that was the idea behind a Facebook app to plug the action movie "Crank: High Voltage."

So, what was the dare? Would you believe that the app asked its users to post a video of "their granny getting humped" in their Facebook news feeds?

Vulgar? You bet.

Funny? Only to the people who would go see the movie.

On brand and attention-grabbing? Absolutely, Ioffe says.

"The key is to know your audience," Ioffe explains. "If you choose the spaghetti-meets-wall approach with humor, your campaign will either be too diluted to resonate with enough users, or it will come across as scattershot and lose any intended impact. For the 'Crank' campaign, we had a pretty strong handle on our audience based on the success of the first film and the subsequent cult that built up around it. We knew that the core fans, a lot of whom are adrenaline junkies (myself included), could handle the more shocking and controversial elements of the Facebook Connect campaign we created. We were confident they would get it and continue the dialogue surrounding the sequel's release."

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What could be funnier than stand-up comedy? According to Butterfinger, nothing, which is why the brand chose to associate itself with the Improv chain of comedy clubs for a wide-ranging sweepstakes that brought together offline performances and funny online videos on a branded Yahoo channel.

But turning the funny over to comedians wasn't just a question of association, it was a necessity, says Claudia Cahill, EVP for corporate development at Medium, a unit of Levity Entertainment Group.

"[You've got to] hire comedy professionals to do the work, not ad copy writers," Cahill advises. "Create a collaborative environment for multi-disciplined creatives to work together to achieve the best material. And, don't think about the process as if you were creating commercial content. The goal of the material is to entertain first and deliver the brand messaging second."

That might sound like dangerous terrain for most brand marketers, but according to Cahill, finding humor first and brand messaging second is an absolute must if you're going to realize your goals.

"Humor is one of the highest emotional recall states that exist," Cahill says. "If you make people laugh, they remember. However, the challenge is defining a construct of humor that links back to a brand's core proposition and assets in a way that makes it 'ownable' and inextricable to the brand."


If the above image looks familiar, it's supposed to. For starters, anyone who's ever enjoyed a can of Pringles has found himself or herself elbow-deep at some point in the experience. But the image should also be familiar because it references a long-running Pringles TV campaign, except that on the web, Pringles and Bridge Worldwide have made the banner the star of the spot.

You'll have to visit Eyeblaster to see the banner in action, but suffice it to say, the joke really develops the more the user clicks on the banner. Messages include: Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; BTW, thanks for trusting our banner not to send you to a porn site; and Are you bored -- because you keep clicking this.

But a long series of jokes isn't about finding one that works for everyone, according to Jason Bender, creative director of Bridge Worldwide.

"Let's face it, comedy is subjective, and not everyone experiences a joke or gag the same way," Bender says. "The key is to embrace that difference in reaction, and purposefully create work that is polarizing to some extent. I tell clients, 'If everyone in the room is laughing a little when we review the work, it's probably not going to work online -- you want some people in the room to laugh so hard that they're crying, but there should also be a few folks scratching their heads because they don't get it. As long as the head-scratchers aren't in the target audience.' If everyone laughs a little, it's not polarizing enough to be really funny. All that said, you have to know that online, it could end up in front of anyone, so you have to know what risk you're taking if you cross the line from confusing into offensive."


In real estate, you hear the same cry over and over again. Location! Location! Location! But if there's a lesson to be gleamed by digital marketers from that nugget of wisdom, Chris Cunningham, CEO of appssavvy, believes that it's context, context, context.

So, if you don't think the above joke -- a polite reference to the trials of breast feeding -- is funny, you're probably not a mom. But that's OK, because while Hallmark understood that anyone might see the joke, it was designed to be part of the conversation on Circle of Moms, a social network for mothers.

Did it resonate with its target audience? You bet. One blogger who had a very powerful reaction to the joke actually wrote: "So to Hallmark, for telling it like it is and making my emotional experience a little less traumatic and reminding me that it's OK to laugh about it... Thank you."

One common way we describe people is to say that he or she has a good sense of humor. What good means is anybody's guess, but just like with people, when it comes to brands, personality counts, says Ed Klein, president of the Hauser Group, which used a witty video series to personify the Cheerwine brand of soda.

"While humor may not be right for every brand, it's rarely wrong," Klein explains. "Just as every person has sides of their personalities, including, hopefully, a sense of humor, so should brands. The Cheerwine personality and sense of humor is all about trying to deliver a laid-back, chilled vibe. The humor is designed to communicate this side of the brand's personality, which we know can drive trial and key brand attributes that are linked to purchase intent."

(click on above image)

While humor in all media can be used to bring out a brand's personality, Klein advises that the strength of digital (when properly matched with humor) is that it allows marketers to drill deeper and expand on a favorable and funny aspect their personality. But, Klein cautions, the web doesn't give a marketer a license to take an unfunny joke to new lengths.

"The freedom [the web] affords shouldn't be mistaken for people having unlimited time to watch your video or other asset," Klein says. "Respect people's time and get to the point; you don't have to do it in just 30- or 60-second increments."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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