Humor is a powerful thing. It does so much more than merely make us laugh. Rather, humor is a complex cognitive process akin to creativity, says Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., professor of psychology at SUNY Albany. That means marketers can use humor to improve their moods, memories, and problem-solving abilities -- not to mention their levels of innovation. Furthermore, humor is a core interpersonal skill for enhancing relationships -- and that has everything to do with how marketers persuade and encourage loyalty among customers, Earleywine notes.
Author of "Humor 101," Earleywine will be presenting a keynote address at the iMedia Agency Summit in May. In this preview interview with iMedia Connection, he discussed when, why, and how digital marketers should look to infuse their marketing message and consumer relationships with a bit of light-heartedness.
Dr. Mitch Earleywine is professor of psychology at SUNY Albany.
iMedia Connection: What can humor do in advertising that an appeal to another emotion (sympathy, joy, lust, fear) cannot?
Mitch Earleywine: Mirth leads us down a special path of persuasion that some emotions can't provide in the same way. This plays out particularly well on stereotypically threatening topics. For example, recent work on getting people to use sunscreen to prevent skin cancer shows that the fear appeals tend to make people freak out, but a humorous one is less threatening and much more likely to translate into intentions to slather on the lotion.
iMedia: Humor has long been a part of the advertising industry. How has its role in the industry evolved with the dawn of new digital platforms including social media, online video, and others?
Earleywine: What's beautiful about models of humor is that they apply in any domain and across any era. Print ads from the 1870s show humor functioning the same way that it does in today's media. The delight of the new digital platforms is the opportunity to persuade consumers to help us make the message go viral. When you think of the videos that are most viewed, the links most often forwarded, the emails that get sent around to big lists, they're almost always the funny ones.
iMedia: When it comes to humor in advertisements, we often see situations in which an audience can easily recall a joke -- but not the brand associated with it. What's the key to rolling humor into a campaign in a way that cements a brand in the customer's mind?
Earleywine: This might not be as big a problem as we once feared. This is a case where a little dab will do you. Recent data show that moderate humor improves memory more than no humor or a lot. Finding that happy medium takes some experimenting. In addition, anyone who crafts a humorous appeal so that the name of the product is part of the punch line is guaranteed longevity and success. Just ask anyone over 30, "Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"
iMedia: When it comes to online marketing, what brands currently seem to be making the best use of humor in their campaigns?
Earleywine: The best ones use humor in combination with other principles. Everybody loves "Elf Yourself." It's funny and has a nice self-referential quality that fits a lot of depth-of-processing theories of memory and liking. The Old Spice commercials with Isaiah Mustafa ridicule sex-based appeals while simultaneously using them.
Ephydrol had a superb campaign claiming it "gets rid of deadly foot odor." One ad shows a spy holding a smelly sock over the face of an enemy, as if it were lethal. It was funny, but had an added bonus of delicately bringing up death. As Terror Management Theory emphasizes, once we get reminded of death, we all want to spend time with friends and loved ones. And what would keep friends and loved ones away? Foot odor. The ad actually gives folks a smile and motivates them to use the product at the same time.
iMedia: Sometimes brands that might not seem to be an obvious fit for a humorous marketing approach surprise us with a bit of comedic gold. What is your favorite example of an unlikely-yet-successful brand attempt at humor?
Earleywine: Though it's certainly not for everyone, Y&R's ad for Soesman Language Training (editor's note: NSFW) certainly resonated with a subset of the public. A prim Dutch family bounces around their car to an English song as if it were the sweetest, most light-hearted tune on Earth. The lyrics, however, are the foulest, most inappropriate words that you could imagine -- then the screen flashes, "Want to learn English?" It works much better than a standard or fear-based appeal depicting how things can go awry for monolinguals. A YouTube version has almost 8 million hits.
iMedia: Of course, humor is all about timing and knowing your audience. How can a brand gauge whether its products and customers lend themselves to a humorous marketing approach before diving in?
Earleywine: There are definitely products and services where humor isn't the right approach to advertising, but it is a great adjunct for the way they do business. A mortuary in my old neighborhood would never use a humorous appeal, but it is light-hearted and understanding in its business interactions and show superb warmth to everyone who comes through the door. The company gets superb word of mouth.
For other products, the type of humor is critical. A target audience that honors traditions and authority responds best to incongruity-resolution humor -- the standard set-up with a punch line that makes sense. In contrast, younger upstarts who might be less stereotypically conservative, more outgoing, and more thrill-seeking respond better to nonsense, absurdist humor -- the jet-pack-powered-by-bacon-donuts type.
iMedia: Can you cite an example of a brand that pursued humor in a marketing campaign and saw it fall flat? What went wrong?
Earleywine: Humor appeals usually go awry when they use the wrong types of humor -- aggressive or self-deprecating. Imperial margarine had an ad where a spud notices that the margarine's all gone. As the sappy Air Supply tune "I'm All Out of Love" blares in the background, the disappointed potato thrusts itself onto an upturned fork. We've got a hostile act, and the character who actually loves the product is unstable and suicidal. Suicide prevention groups blistered the company with angry emails, and anybody who liked the product had to identify with a depressed tuber. The ad was pulled in less than a month.
iMedia: In your book "Humor 101," you discuss Pot Noodles, a brand that wisely decided to poke fun at its own low-rent reputation in its advertising. That said, many brands are notoriously humorless when it comes to their own images. How can agencies make the case to their brand clients that they occasionally need to be willing to indulge in some self-mockery?
Earleywine: There are two key ideas for making this transition. One, from psychology, is called successive approximations. It's the baby steps that companies can take from no humor to a little humor to a full-blown funny campaign. The other comes from the stand-up comedy term "calling the room" -- literally pointing out the fact that humor has not been part of the experience so far. If a company has a history of more staid campaigns, pointing out that fact can be funny in itself. Both Luvs and Huggies have taken funny steps simply by sidestepping some of the euphemisms of previous diaper ads. Instead of innocuous blue fluids poured into linings, they've got cartoon babies showing their rear ends.
Companies that aren't quite ready for self-mockery will often appreciate a first step that might rib the folks who don't know about their product. The IBM/Linux commercial "The Heist" is a good example. A hard-working drone and two policemen who are less than savvy about computers fear that an enormous room of servers have been stolen, but soon they learn that they've all been replaced with a single server that's going to save tons of cash. It's funny, but not at IBM's expense.
iMedia: Beyond what we've discussed above, what is the single most important insight into humor and its ability to persuade that you wish all digital marketers were aware of?
Earleywine: Humor is one of the tools that's best applied when it's enjoyed. Media people put in more hours than the Pope. Humor is the key to keeping us all from burning out. As marketers and publishers become more willing to spend time in a playful state, the time they spend in a serious state will become more efficient. They won't just get more done, they'll feel more alive.
Lori Luechtefeld is editor of iMedia Connection.