If you've been keeping up on the midterm elections, you might've noticed that several of the political candidates this year have tried to use humor, in some form or another, in their political ads. From Terry Lynn's “Really” ad to Mitch McConnell's “What Rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?” it seems that serious politicians everywhere have been trying to wisecrack their way into the poll booth. So why have serious politicians professing to have serious stands on serious issues taken such a frivolous approach to campaigning?
The answer is simple, really: the ads are an attempt to humanize the candidate and relate to the constituency. By showing their audience that they're human — that they laugh too, that they like to have fun and poke fun — they're shaking off the image of the power-hungry bureaucrat who's only interest is self-gain and power, and they're building affinity towards an otherwise dry topic.
The Insurance Funnies
One industry that has taken great lengths to be the leader in humorous advertisements is the auto insurance industry. You almost can't compete in the insurance trade unless you have top-notch funny commercials (Geico, Allstate), or at the very least a coy mascot or spokesperson (Progressive, The General). So why have insurance companies taken this approach? Let's take a look at two characteristics of insurance services:
- The topic is dry and serious
Can you imagine an auto insurance company thoroughly explaining their rates, services and policies in a 45 second TV commercial? For one, it would sound like the lawyer talk at the end of a pharmaceutical ad, and for two... YAWN!
- Competing services are very similar
While one may not be the cheapest but offer more services (“Your in good hands”), and the other is cheaper but offers only basic services (“15 minutes can save you 15% or more”), the reality is that the differences between insurance companies can be subtle. This is why auto insurance companies try to use humor to create affinity for their brand and propensity in their market.
Other industries that use humor in the same way (and for much the same reasons) are fast food (e.g Jack in the Box) and alcohol (e.g. Budweiser), where the differences between products are very subjective.
Missing the Mark
Funny advertisements can miss the mark, and sometimes in a big way. It's easy to get caught up in the humor and lose the message, or get caught up in the message and lose the humor. Even when the balance is right you run the risk of the advertisement just not being funny to your target audience.
Take my earlier examples of this year's political ads. It's not that I don't applaud these politicians for trying to show their “human” side while campaigning for office, but watching some of these ads is like listening to a newscaster trying to crack a joke (i.e. flat & boring). Unless you already really like the candidate, these ads might not do much for you, especially if they're smearing a candidate you do like in the process. Mostly, they just come across as awkward, like the “squeal” ad by Joni Ernst who “grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”
Using humor in marketing is always a risk, but when you win, you win big. Just remember to follow some simple guidelines early in the creative process:
- Storyboard your ideas and share with management
- Share with other members of your team internally to gauge reactions
- Stay on brand
- Stay on message
- Be aware of how sensitive groups may react to your message (read: don't be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc)
- If all of the above sucks the “funny” from your idea, start over with a different idea
- Don't give up, the world needs more laughter!
Now get out there and make someone's day (and introduce them to your brand in the process)!