How Punny! The Great Debate on Wordplay

Posted on December 26, 2018 by DL M

Puns, some people like them and some find the utterance of a pun ‘cringy.’ But puns are more than just the last area of humor allowed to browbeaten fathers. Otherwise known as paronomasia, a pun is wordplay that relies on either the multiple meanings of a word or the similar sounds of two words.

The joke that begins, ‘Why can’t shell-shocked soldiers go duck hunting,’ relies on the double meaning of the word “duck.” “A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion,” relies on the similar sound of ‘poetry’ and ‘poultry.’

The Trouble With Puns

The trouble with puns is that they actually mock the humorless, and that’s dangerous. You see, a pun is not funny because it’s meant to be clever or witty. The pun does not necessarily contain an abstracted absurdity as most jokes do. The butt of the joke with a pun is the idea of a person who might make such a grammatical mistake and not know it. We are laughing at the idea that someone might say ‘poultry’ when he means ‘poetry.’ Other jokes rely on this same premise, and they are strictly politically incorrect.

The underlying meaning of a pun is, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if someone was stupid enough to say this…’ Then the stupidity is acted out. For this reason, the humorless associate puns with stupidity, and the joke is truly on them. The real fun in a pun is instantly finding out who in the room is a fart, and who has a limber sense of humor.

Puns in Advertising

Now, we’re talking about advertising, and in advertising- you want to appeal to humorless farts as much as you do to everyone else. Selling widgets is not a popularity contest. It’s capitalism. So, we want to know when it is appropriate to use puns in marketing and when to leave the farts in peace.

The trick to using a pun successfully is to use the right tone for the right product, and of course- the right pun. In TV ad spots, more often than not, successful usages of puns are paired with high-end luxury products and spare advertising. These advertisements tend to be very light on messaging. They rely on ambiance, the mystique of the brand, and the use of puns in which the cleverness of the wordplay stands out much more than the inherent silliness of the pun.

One of the greatest examples of puns in advertising comes from Toyota. The slogan, “The Car in Front is a Toyota,” does not draw attention to itself. It is clever. It draws attention to the product. It’s not over the top, or silly- yet it fulfills the definition of a pun.

Another great example comes from the department store, the House of Fraser. Department stores classically tended to be multi-level and feature different types of goods on each ‘level’ or floor. The phrase was “Temptation on Every Level.” Again, the actual pun is supremely understated. The brand itself is of a high-class character- or at least it appeals as such to a certain demographic. As for the pun, it’s hard to notice that it is a pun. It just sounds understated and appropriate.

The Golden Rule of Puns in Marketing: Mostly Don’t

But when do we want our puns to be silly? The answer is, not often. A few years ago a lending website called Skint used the slogan, “You’re Broke. We’ll Fix It.” They used a friendly tone and were appealing to people of a working-class character. In other words, their customers are not snobs. They can appreciate the sort of joke the British would call ‘broad.’

In the end, tone and personality are the deciding factors. The golden rule of puns in marketing is; The product/brand is the point of attention, not the pun.

Knowing when to use a pun is the job of testing batteries and focus groups. Short of that, your best judgment will have to suffice.

DL M has 21 years of professional writing for print and online media and has 10+ years experience as a freelance fiction editor. He’s a content creator for major corporations covering all topics for a wide range of industries, specializing in white papers, research, news content. His specialty subjects include: current events, marketing, analytics, personal development, leveraging social media, SEO, business development, cloud computing, language, and politics.


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