What marketers can learn from the science of humor in marketing: How to use content and humor in marketing to increase shares and trust
Why would a video clip that is a little over a minute long earn this tweet from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to his over 300,000 followers?
This ad’s basically a masterpiece http://t.co/NSsFVXY1zG
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) September 17, 2013
The video was posted by congressional candidate Carl Sciortino during his campaign and was titled – “Father’s Son”. Sciortino is openly gay, and the video played with the idea of coming out to one’s parent. However, in this instance he is coming out not as a gay man but as a “Massachusetts liberal” to his conservative “Tea Party” dad. From a marketing point of view, the video blurred the line between political agenda, advertising and content marketing to use humor to attract attention and connect with viewers regardless of their political inclinations.
Why use humor?
People are interested in smart and meaningful content. Consider this – no one comes home after work to sit through a long dry talk. No is also tuning into programs like “The Daily Show” or the “Colbert Show” because they being forced to. They do it because they want to. Humor or comedy done successfully allows a subject to slide past a person’s intellectual defenses. It works because it is unexpected and allows a person to see from a new perspective. This is why people are more often open to new ideas or even criticism of deeply held beliefs when expressed comically. Humor has the power to transform any topic or conversation into something funny and worth sharing. Sharon Begley, a Newsweek science writer, says that the cognitive scientist Matthew Hurley (along with two co-authors: Daniel Dennett and Reginald B. Adams, Jr.), of Indiana University, has written:
“the most persuasive theory of humor in the centuries that scientists have been trying to explain why we crack up.”
It is called “Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Brain”. In it Hurley essentially says that a joke involves clever twists, twists that are funny and not sad or that induce any other negative emotion.
Is humor in marketing really effective?
Humor is effective because it humanizes and surprises. For example, you can play it straight and write an article that logically and emphatically states how your yogurt was created from natural ingredients and good for you. Alternatively, you can get the point across and create something relatable, charming and (of course!) shareable like Chobani did.
Chobani did this by creating a commercial for its yogurt that emphasizes that a cup of yogurt will not change the world but how it is made might. The former is boring. The latter infuses the message ad brand with a human element. So how can we leverage humor in our content and use humor in marketing? Before we get into that let’s get a better understanding of why humor is an effective emotion in terms of getting people to take notice and share.
Humor is a good thing
Humor appears to help people with their psychological and physical well-being according to various studies. However, humor also has social benefits.
Funny people tend to receive positive attention and admiration that explains why the acronym GSOH (good sense of humor) is found so often in personal and dating posts. However, humor can be used for subversion. In fact, research by the Humor Reasearch Lab found that consumers effectively used humor to criticize brands. An example of which is the publishing of Dave Carroll’s YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars”. The release of this video and its gaining over 10 million views coincided with a decrease in United’s stock price by 10%.
Why humor backfires?
Humor is great when it works, but the reality is that is can backfire, and the results can be destructive, leading to broken trust, sales drop offs, etc. An example is Groupon’s failed Super Bowl commercial.
Another being example being that of Absolut Vodka running a series of ads in Mexico which included an 1800’s map of North America before the Mexican-American War when several of the Southwestern states were part of Mexico. This at a time when the United States was beefing up border security to prevent illegal immigration.
Photo Credit: Simon Davison
Scott Weems author of the book “Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why”, found in his research that humor or comedy tastes vary widely. He found that humor was not about set up or punchlines but about the “kick of discovery” – which is thinking one way and then turning that thinking around. This involves shock and surprise and a destination too. Based on British researcher Richard Wiseman’s finding Weems says –
Of the thousands of jokes analyzed in Wiseman’s study, the ones rated highest by everybody included some shock or surprise, but not so much that they became the centerpiece of the joke. More important was a sense of false expectations being overturned.
Viewing humor as a psychological process has benefits for example in understanding why we commonly laugh during tragic events. But it can also result in the analysis becoming vague. Consider this, what is a joke, really? It is hard to answer, and each person will have a different response because the answer is in our heads. Whatever causes our brain confusion or conflict is likely to make us laugh. We all laugh at different things because we each have different thresholds for what leads to confusion and what offends us. So from a marketing point of view it would perhaps be better to look at what makes us want to share humorous incidents and stories.
Why humor makes us want to share?
Humor can create joy is if done right. Joy or happiness is a key driver or social media sharing as John Tierney reports in the New York Times. Studies by Fractl and Jonah Berger also found that emotions related to happiness are among the top drivers of viral content. Abigail Posner from Google says this urge to share is like an energy exchange.
“When we see or create an image that enlivens us, we send it to others to give them a bit of energy and effervescence. Every gift holds the spirit of the gifter. Also, every image reminds us and others that we are alive, happy and full of energy (even if we may not always feel that way). Moreover, when we ‘like’ or comment on a picture or video sent to us, we’re sending a gift of sorts back to the sender. We’re affirming them. But, most profoundly, this ‘gift’ of sharing contributes to an energy exchange that amplifies our own pleasure – and is something we’re hardwired to do.”
So, how can you use humor in marketing?
In essence business can use humor to create content that gifts happiness. In other words, they can create content that reminds prospects and customers of our capacity for excitement, happiness, and vivacity. In doing so, businesses get attention, recall and can start natural conversations as the audience shares it with others. So how does this work in practice? Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Examples of the successful use of humor in marketing:
1. Have fun with your logo
Google has a reputation for having fun with its logo especially in relation to significant dates, events or people. The company also solicits logo ideas from students in the Doodle4Google competition. Consider adding some flair and fun to your logo to drive conversations and create more engagement.
2. Have fun with your product
Oreo Cookies Twitter feed is not simply fun and entertaining with cookie related jokes and musings.
Also, look at the way they celebrated their 100th birthday.
3. Create funny cartoons and quotes related to your business
Dilbert comics are probably the best-known business related cartoons that businesses can use to engage audiences and customers. Grammarly does a similar thing on their social media feeds that include quotes like the one below which makes fun of common grammar and spelling errors.
4. Test wacky ad/campaign ideas
Burger King did an excellent job with personalized pre- roll ads mocking pre-roll ads. Take a look.
5. Leverage a fun video series
Gary Vaynerchuk loved the spoken word more than the written word and built Wine Library TV around it selling wine. Derek Halpern uses video in his content and does in a humorous way that engages his audience.
6. Think story
Cisco’s Tim Washer featured in a video series called Fast Innovation and The Slow Waiter in which he has fun conversations with real CIO’s including those from Western Union, Grupo Modelo, and Safeway. Cisco created an atmosphere conducive to a conversation that also allowed the CIO’s to shine.
Zwartbles Ireland uses Facebook to tell fun stories of everyday happenings. The company raise a breed of sheep and sell the wool and blankets made from the wool.
The company has given each sheep and the Cat Shepherd, who corrals them a personality that frequently feature on the page.
Fans follow them for updates. While the posts are not necessarily laugh out loud funny they are endearing, family friendly and cute.
7. Remember that big budgets are not always the best solution
Small businesses and startups have an edge over big corporate competitors in that they more than likely do not have as much bureaucracy and approval processes. Humor and being nimble can be an advantage as was the case with Hello Flo – a tampon subscription service that created a video called “The Camp Gyno”. With humor in their marketing, “David” like companies can take on their “Goliath” like competitors. The video was a viral hit with well over 8 million views and counting.
8. Try the truth – it can be funny
The truth can be funny especially when talking about an issue or problem that your customers can identify with.
Kinaxis leverages this as they explore awkward relationships with their comedy series
9. Tackle customer problems with parodies
Programmers are at times forced to collaborate with clients, business executives who do not understand the basics of programming. This video highlights the bizarre situations that programmers can at times be placed in.
10. Use intrigue and contrast
Use intrigue and contrast to engage prospects and highlight a point or outcome as this Adobe marketing analytics ad does.
11. Create a mockumentary
The mockumentary by Only Original on what isn’t organic is a great take on the commonly used food marketing tactics.
12. Use funny eye candy
Volkswagen USA made proper use of their sponsorship of Shark Week with a Vine video. It was made beautifully and certainly got much attention on social media.
Southwest Airlines use’s its Pinterest board to continue with its well known fun approach to flying. With over 18,000 pinners following, the company knows what flies with its audience. Boards like Plane Party Ideas, 41 Years of SWAwesome Holidays and Just PLANE Fun Crafts and Such are just a few of the many ways they continue to engage with their audience.
13. Interact and surprise your customers
Mobile phone carrier ThreeUK asked people in a Twitter campaign to tweet them a word. If the tweeters word were chosen, the ThreeUK choir would sing it to them. People responded and tweeted all kinds of words to which ThreeUK responded to them all. Followers loved the attention as well as the final video.
14. Break through perceptions
Bathroom humor is often considered to be overdone but Charmin has found ways to stand out in a saturated market without making its audience feel that way. For example on Twitter they launched their own hashtag campaign called #tweetfromtheseat
Understanding the nuances of each platform and community as well as how your brand is authentically represented in each has helped Charmin find its place by providing comic relief for otherwise awkward topics
Over to you
Being able to stand out, be fresh isn’t easy so using humor or outragrous maketing certainly helps. After all who wants to go shopping for toilet paper, courses or insurance for example. There is a need to reinvent your band and stay fresh in people’s mind given the competitive nature of the marketplace today.
It is easy to take something exciting like a sports car or clothing line and make the marketing enjoyable. However to take something that people don’t ordinarily enjoy buying and get them to look forward to the experience is very different ball game.
Marketing needs a human touch if it is to gain attention and help build an audience. Sure, there is risk in any campaign. So instead of beginning with a large campaign, start small. Start with content for internal consumption, vet it and then re-purpose for your external audience. In an age of increasing amounts of information and complexity, chances are your audience is hungry for real connections. So show them that you are a different kind of brand and company.
You can be sure of this – that people love connecting and humor. If you are a brand that can create smiles and laughs with your audience, they’ll appreciate it and come back. After all we could all afford to smile and laugh more.
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