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Humor in Marketing the Seriously Uncomfortable

Ever had that time everyone was laughing and you realized they weren’t laughing with you but rather at you? Trust me – that’s not the way to use humor in marketing the uncomfortable matters your target audience has to deal with.

Make Fun With, Not At

A few years ago Google determined the four all-time iconic advertising campaigns. Numbers two – four were Coke, Avis, and Volvo but coming a strong number one was, wait for it, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

I give you the punchline first because I’m willing to bet a good number of you thought, “Alka-Seltzer” without my help.

Alka-Seltzer’s ad campaign that dates back to before many were born yet is iconic because the brand got it right before humor was “in” for advertising. They made us shake our heads and smile at something we all have experienced.

To refresh your memory, here’s the ad, and here’s the pitch. A miserable man sits on the edge of the bed muttering in a way that makes you feel his misery.

Learning about Humor from The Alka-Seltzer

The reason this darkly humorous ad became a part of American culture, making its way to an episode of the Simpsons, is it:

  • Didn’t make fun of anyone
  • Tackled what could be a sensitive subject
  • Was something we could all relate to

Know When You Might as Well Shoot for the Moon

There are only two ways to tackle advertising some subjects: say nothing and hope people find you anyway or do whatever it takes to make them realize you have what they need.

The Poo Test

How do you know if humor might be what is needed to break the ice? Give it the Poo Test. Here are two examples of the Poo test that literally has something to do with, well, poo.

1. When the Scottish government wanted to raise awareness of colon cancer, it came up with ‘The Poo Song’ a contagious jingle that reminded aging adults about the need for taking a bowel screening test. Try this one on Karaoke night.

2. How do a mother and her 41-year old son take her constipation problem and devise a simple answer that becomes a multi-million dollar business? After Judy and Bobby Edwards ordered their 2,000 units from a source in China, they realized it wouldn’t be as easy selling a poop solution to strangers. It didn’t hurt that a lot of perseverance landed them on Shark Tank and Lori Greiner invested $500,000 in their company but it’s their humorous series of ads on social media that set them on the path to top $100 million in a few years.

Consider the  Squatty Potty YouTube where the company uses a Prince sitting on a toilet with a trademarked tagline above him that reads, “poop like royaltyTM.” The first video has grown into a series with millions of views that feature the further adventures of the “prince of poopTM,” giving us yet more smile about what is becoming less and less of an uncomfortable topic as we relate together with those the prince encounters. There’s more commentary about this ad in another Comedy Writer Blog Post: check it out!

Going Against the Grain with Humor

Lisa King is the senior associate director at the research agency TNS She notes:

Humour seems to be a counter-intuitive move in social marketing on health issues as it can undermine the gravitas of a message. On the issue of cancer, however, it has had a paradoxical effect by disarming audiences and creating receptivity to an issue that they might otherwise have been closed off to. -Lisa King

King is referring to ads like the one from Scotland that pushes cancer awareness. The same principle holds when a company needs to advertise a product that is necessary but usually not mentioned in public. The answer? You guessed it, make them smile and then talk about it.

There are three challenges to this kind of marketing:

  • Give them the unexpected without jarring their sensibilities.  The trick isn’t just about being funny – it’s about being funny for funny’s sake. Be funny in ways that people don’t expect but in ways that make them glad they thought about it.
  • Challenging myths and misconceptions with a smile on your face – and theirs. One of the funniest health ads I’ve seen are the ones used for Canada’s anti-smoking campaign. This one makes shames the language of ‘social smoking’ by comparing it to ‘social farting.’ (“Just because I fart at parties now and then – it doesn’t make me a farter.”). Find a better example of using strategic humor to tackle excuses and defenses. Better yet, come up with one for whatever you have to pitch.
  • Humor is all about subject and timing. Great comedians have great writers and great timing. No one know your clients or customers better than you. If you know what humor is appropriate and when it is best used, it may surprise you at how effective a humorous ad campaign is.

Judy Evans instinctively knew her audience and wisely allowed an ad agency to develop a campaign that audience would be mildly surprised they were laughing along with her about – and buy!

Go ahead – tackle the uncomfortable with funny.

An agented novelist and full-time freelance writer, Tim G specializes in SEO content writing, full-length non-fiction ghost writing, and has written and developed corporate and educational application training materials.

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Freelancer Tim G

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