Humor in Advertising

September 3, 2020


Is it appropriate to use humor in ads during a crisis? How do consumers respond?


Everyone loves a good laugh. It's scientifically proven that humor, and laughter, can actually improve our health; according to Mayo Clinic, laughing can slow down someone's heart rate, relieve tension, increase endorphins in the brain, and can "actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses."

For brands, using humor as a way to connect with consumers in an authentic, and light-hearted, way is usually a huge component in creative strategy. However, in times of crisis, specifically in the midst of COVID-19, is humor still appropriate? Many brands are questioning whether humor, even if a legitimate way to combat stress and depression, is effective. Could it be seen as thoughtless and insensitive?

As Kantar reported in a study conducted in May 2020, only 29 percent of consumers believe brands should avoid humor. Of course, while consumers welcome humor, it needs to be justified and well-placed contextually, as Kantar went on to note that, "consumers do feel that brands should be adapting their advertising to recognize and respect the situation, and to show what relevant thing they may be doing to help consumers in their everyday life. The key is being relevant; brands must be careful not to force themselves into a position that doesn't align with their identity and products."

Below are case studies, brand examples, studies, and articles on how to effectively use humor in times of tumult.

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Humor and COVID-19: When Is It Appropriate?

  • COVID-19's impact on consumer media usage and attitudes. Kantar, May 27, 2020
    Consumers don't want brands to exploit the situation; they want authentic and relevant connections with brands. Ads that are informative, helpful and reassuring are all viewed positively. And as the crisis wears on, consumers are increasingly open to lighter tones and humor in ads

    Just 29 percent of consumers believe brands should avoid humor as compared to 41 percent in the earlier days of the pandemic. This transition can increasingly be seen in new TV ads, with earlier spots focused on safety measures and essential workers giving way to ones that poke gentle fun at common experiences like video conference mishaps.

    Also from Kantar, see Authentic empathy: How marketers should respond to COVID-19, which includes on page 35:

  • Progressive Launches Work-From-Home Campaign. MediaPost, April 29, 2020
    Shot on iPhones and leveraging a new condensed timeframe and process for production, the spots also lean into Progressive's roots in improv, says Progressive CMO Jeff Charney. "We're always pushing for first-mover advantage, and we succeeded by becoming the first 'commercial' improv cast to appear in a virtual video setting," Charney tells Marketing Daily. "It's a statement on the relevance of our superstar cast, who's 11 years young, and the 'funny because it's true' situations that are top of mind right now. It's the right content for the right context."

  • Is it OK to make marketing funny during a crisis? Wray Ward, May 19, 2020
    As the pandemic continues to upend daily life as we know it and overwhelm us with a constant stream of information, many have turned to humor or escapism to lighten the mood. Shared memes on social media. TikTok dances with our kids. Endless hours of HGTV makeover shows. It's clear we all love — even crave — levity right now. But should we welcome the same kind of approach from brands or companies in their marketing? This looks at some examples of brands breaking through with humor amid stress.

  • Sam Adams Moves Forward with Humorous Campaign That Was Halted When Pandemic Struck. Ad Age, May 15, 2020
    Boston-based brand owner Boston Beer Co. originally planned to release the frivolous campaign in March, but backed off as the seriousness of the coronavirus came into view. "We just did not feel it was the right moment to be launching those kinds of campaigns," Chief Marketing Officer Lesya Lysyj told Ad Age at the time, as Sam Adams shifted its communications to raise money for restaurant workers sidelined by the pandemic. Asked this week why the time was right now to move forward, she said in a statement that the campaign "provides levity and entertainment at a time when people are ready and looking for it."

  • What Should Ads Look Like in the Time of Recession?LinkedIn. April 21, 2020

    Humor is discussed throughout this piece as a good means to help consumers cope with tough situations.

General Best Practices for Humor in Advertising

  • Take Humor in Advertising Seriously? When to Use and When to Avoid. GWL Advertising.
    When considering humor for an ad, the audience/demographic can dictate the entire appropriateness of the ad's content. Always remember to consider the target market and take into consideration specific factors that affect messaging. After all, one person's punch line could turn out to be another person's punch in the face. If the above is true, why does humor even matter? Well, chiefly, because there are plenty of other options when developing the personality of a marketing campaign. Before settling on humor as a campaign tactic, consider the following pros and cons.

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"Humor in Advertising." ANA, September 2020.