What Do Brands Get Wrong When Writing With Humor?

If you’ve ever had to swipe through profiles on a dating app, you’ll probably notice a good number of people with the following in their bio: “Just looking for someone to make me laugh!”

We tend to be more drawn to humorous people and funny things: In a study conducted with 3,000 married couples from five countries, both husbands and wives were found to be happier with a humorous partner – and this was especially true when it came to the wives. 

Humor has a positive impact on marriages, in teaching and learning, and also on our general wellbeing. Other benefits of humor include: helping us remember and retain information better, getting other people’s attention more easily, and conveying intelligence and confidence.

As marketers in an industry where attention is currency, it would be a good idea to consider including more humor in our creative work!

What is humorous copywriting?

Humorous copywriting is copy that elicits chuckles from its audience. Have you ever wanted to comment “lmaooooo” on a digital advertisement? Ever wanted to share a funny marketing copy with someone that you know would get a laugh out of it too? Ever stopped to take a picture of a funny billboard and post it on your social media accounts? Then you’ve encountered humorous copywriting.

Humorous copywriting uses humor to engage and entertain the audience while promoting a product or service. It is a strategy that seeks to make the audience laugh by using witty language, puns, or jokes — all in an effort to create a positive brand association and encourage brand recall. 

Here are some examples of humorous copywriting done well:

1. Using puns to swear publicly without getting censored!

2. Who can resist furry friends that are both adorable and funny?

3. Let your imagination run free!

What makes for good, humorous copywriting?

Humorous copy may seem easy and effortless to execute, but to do it well, copywriters need to pay attention to the context, notice inconsistencies, and know their audience well because different audiences have different perspectives on humor.

Whether you are a copywriter, marketer or business owner, you should give humor copywriting a shot because it is one of the best ways to create memorable ads and taglines! But keep in mind that there is a fine line between humor and sarcasm, dark humor and offensive jokes, witty punchlines and crass jokes. You have to tread this line carefully to not alienate your target audience.

We highlighted some mistakes you need to avoid when writing with humor:

1. Not understanding their target audience

Sarcasm, which uses irony to make fun of or send the opposite message, is a frequently used technique in humor copywriting for advertisements. Pay attention to the tone and context when you use it in your copy! It is easy for it to come off as offensive in words, which will harm your brand’s image.

To use this particular kind of humor effectively, copywriters must understand how the audience will perceive and react to the sarcasm. You can achieve this by doing a lot of research, analyzing human behaviors, and understanding social nuances. If the copywriter’s humor style doesn’t align with the target audience’s perception, the humor may fall flat (in this case, it took a wrong turn!)

Case Study

Back in 2013, high-end department store Bloomingdale’s ran a holiday ad with the tagline “Spike Your Best Friend’s Eggnog When They’re Not Looking”. Many viewers found the ad to be inappropriate and even promoting sexual assault, as the phrase “spiking” is often used to refer to the malicious act of adding drugs or alcohol to someone’s drink without their consent. This led to a massive backlash against the brand.

What was intended to be a foolish holiday “joke” turned out to be a brand image disaster. “Spiking an eggnog” typically refers to the act of adding alcohol such as rum or brandy to the traditional holiday beverage, eggnog, to add flavor and make it more festive. The use of sarcasm in this ad failed because it was seen as insensitive and in poor taste. Bloomingdale’s took down the ad and issued an apology, but the damage had already been done.

This is why you must conduct research and be aware of how various audiences may interpret the message when using humor in their work. To ensure the humor in your copy hits your audience at the right mark, make sure you understand them well!

2. Ignoring cultural and social context

Humor and cultural references are like peanut butter and jelly: they complement each other to create a delightful combination that appeals to many. When humor is intertwined with the clever use of cultural references, it adds layers of humor that resonate with audiences on a deeper level.

Sometimes, humor copywriting can be a match of keep up or lose out. We copywriters have to familiarize ourselves with cultural references and current events to ensure our copy does not miss the mark!

Case Study

Even big brands make mistakes, and Pepsi is an example of one that did. The brand is known for high-budget campaigns that feature famous names such as Beyonce and Cardi B, just to name a few. 

In 2017, they aired a television commercial that featured fashion icon Kendall Jenner, joining a protest where protestors stood in a standoff with police officers. She walks up to a police officer and gives him a can of Pepsi, then walks back to the crowd which erupts in cheers. The police officer seems satisfied and relaxed after drinking the soda, quelling any chances of a violent clash; all thanks to Kendall Jenner and Pepsi for saving the day!

The commercial received a lot of backlash and criticism online, and Pepsi had to release an official statement to take it down. Why? 

When the commercial aired, protests and riots took place all over America as part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. On the surface, it seems like the Pepsi commercial was “inspired” by these protests and encouraged people to “live bolder”, but audiences thought that it trivializes the purposes of these protests: criticizing police brutality and racial discrimination.

Today, more consumers are attuned to altruism and demand that brands step up and do better to advance for social change. Copywriters and marketers have to take cultural and social context into account when creating marketing materials.

3.  Trying too hard to be funny

Sometimes, humor is like a secret language: either you get it or you don’t.

You know that awkward moment when you try to fit in a group that you aren’t on the same wavelength with? That’s exactly how it feels when a brand tries too hard to be funny and ends up making their target audience cringe over it.

With Millennials and Gen-Z consumers set to overtake older consumers in the consumer market, they are a huge target for companies, advertising agencies, and market research firms. Brands want to put in the effort to engage with Millennials and younger audiences who are “chronically online”, but uhh… sometimes these ads come off as awkward and unfunny. 

Case Study

In 2012, Kia used memes like Condescending Willy Wonka and LOLCats to promote the Kia Sorento. The campaign, dubbed “Seasons Memeing Contest,” encourages participants to come up with images using creative captions and memes to win gift certificates and a $1,000 prize to fund a classroom project. Despite the financial and philanthropic motives, young audiences did not respond positively to the campaign. More than 70 Kia-related memes were uploaded, but every single one of them had more downvotes than upvotes.

We appreciate the effort, but it’s just not giving!

Don’t get us wrong: we do love it when brands utilize current trends and cultural symbols to get their message across! Unfortunately, the copywriters at Kia failed to grasp and distill the essence of the meme, resulting in a message that wasn’t funny or relatable for the audience. 

Think of your audience as high school cliques that “speak” their own language! If you cannot relate to them or decipher their language, it is better not to attempt to be humorous in your copy — it might end up as a half-baked marketing ad that does a bad job of engaging the audience.

* * *

Give your audience the gift of laughter (and have the last laugh yourselves) by creating memorable and engaging marketing campaigns with humorous copywriting!

Humor is a powerful tool for brands to connect with their audience, but copywriters have to use it wisely and be mindful of its risks. At the heart of every successful marketing campaign is authentic, relatable, and inclusive content that makes your copy stand out.

Don’t let your brand’s attempts at humor fall flat like a bad joke! Create amusing and entertaining copy to give your audience a good laugh by working with us today.

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