Puns in Marketing: The Good, The Bad and The Pugly

marketing puns

A pun is the lowest form of humor… – Doug Larson

Are puns a good choice for a marketer looking for an edge? It depends on who you ask. Some self-proclaimed experts say never use puns — too risky. Others might tell you that a good pun is the best kind of creative wordplay for marketing. Maybe a case could be made for either point of view — so let’s try to make one.

Puns Gone Wrong

The problem with using a pun online, in print media or as a tagline to develop a brand is that once you do it, you can’t undo it. A bad pun is a potentially pun-ishing experience. For example, the shoe company Foot Petals used this one in an ad campaign:

Shoe-icide is not the answer.

The ad included a picture of shoes with feet and legs attached hanging upside down in a noose. They probably got a few laughs out of that, but they were most likely the uncomfortable kind. It’s not hard to see why many find this reckless and a bit insensitive as opposed to clever wordsmithing.

The ad went on to say:

Reviving a love/hate relationship with your sexy shoes.

That’s a good example of a bad pun, one that in today’s marketing climate is likely to backfire.

Here’s another one once used by the now-defunct Washington Mutual Bank:

Free-range checkin

The background image – baby chicks. You gotta know PETA loved it.

The risk of putting your foot in your marketing mouth is not the only reason puns are sometimes a bad idea, though.

Google May Not Approve

Google expects readability, and their algorithm doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.

  • Simple
  • Succinct
  • Logical
  • Flows

These are all words you see associated with the Google-friendly text formula — not a pun in the bunch. A pun may be funny but killing your SEO strategy at the same time.

The Time Paradox

Time is also a consideration for most marketing campaigns.

Why did the bakery start a blog? They needed the dough.

It took me about five minutes to come up with that, and it’s not funny.

The amount of time you spend trying to think up a pun could go towards on a more effective form of humor. For puns to really have an impact, they need to be exceptionally clever, and most fail to meet that standard.

Historically Speaking

If in doubt, go back to see what has worked in the past. Look at some of the really historic taglines:

  • Just Do It – Nike
  • We Try Harder – Avis
  • Every kiss begins with Kay – Kay Jewelers
  • For life – Volvo

Classy, simple and not all that punny.

Puns Done Right

There is one puntastic slogan offered by Dollar Shave Club, a company that seems to define humorous campaigns:

“Shave time. Shave Money.”

House of Fraser has a good one, too:

“Temptation on Every Level”

The field of well-played puns is almost nonexistent, though.

The truth is the most pugly puns in marketing are visual:

Thank you, British Airways.

Or how about this one from Coke:

The key to using puns in a campaign is to follow one simple rule:

Don’t make the pun your primary focus. You want to make the brand memorable. If you can do that with a smart, witty pun, great. If not, though, there are more effective forms of word-centric humor worth exploring.

Upgrading Your Sense of Humor

Doug Larson probably got it right, puns really are the lowest form of humor no matter how clever. They work great when you are sitting in a bar telling a joke, but for marketing, not so much. There is a reason it is hard to find examples of ad puns that didn’t fall flat.

The goal of any tagline or slogan is to:

  • Stick in people’s minds
  • Sell at least one benefit of the brand, service or product
  • Make the brand pop
  • Give potential leads that warm fuzzy feeling because happiness sells.

And, cue examples:

  • Apple – Think Different
  • BMW – Designed for Driving Pleasure
  • Lay’s – Bet You Can’t Eat Just One
  • The New York Times – All the News That’s Fit to Print
  • The U.S. Marine Corp – The Few, The Proud, The Marines

What do all these famous taglines have in common? They appeal to their target audience in a way that makes them proud or happy, the phrase is catchy and totally pun-less.

Do puns work in marketing? The answer is most don’t. Unless you can come up with a good one in about six seconds, look for a better way.

 

Darla F is a full-time freelance writer published internationally and an award-winning author. Over the last decade, she has ghostwritten memoirs for a successful entrepreneur and created byline pieces for USAToday, Jillian Michaels, USARiseUP, New York Times — About.com, Multibrief, MedCity News, LiveStrong and AOL. Darla is known for her ability to take complex topics and make them clear to anyone.


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