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As brands race to build their own purpose-driven marketing campaigns could they be forgetting one of advertising best-known truths – their customers still love a laugh?
When NFL player Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee during The Star-Spangled Banner to protest racial violence in the US, he not only changed the political discourse, but arguably the advertising landscape, too.
His now lauded ad for Nike has taken home just about every trophy possible – from a slew of Cannes Lions to a recent Emmy – and had CMOs around the world scrambling to give their own brands purpose, meaning, ethics, a message; and their agencies the chance to win the plaudits the likes
of Kaepernick and Nike
And, as we’ve seen the rise of the purpose-driven ad, arguably it’s come at the cost of the funny one. Which is interesting in its self as probably the most innovative brand on the planet at the moment – in terms of its marketing – is Burger King, and it plays in one space – tickling the funny bone to flog its Whoppers.
Anyone who was to Google “10 most-watched ads on YouTube for 2019” and a quick check of the winner reveals it’s (drum roll, please) Amazon’s Super Bowl ad “Alexa Loses Her Voice”. Not only does it play for laughs, it (at the time of writing) boasts a rather impressive 51 million views.
And the other nine in the top 10? Five would be considered funny, two played as music videos and, yes, only two of the 10 played the purpose-driven card – Nike’s Kaepernick ad that came in in the fourth spot with 28 million views and Gatorade’s CGI homage to Lionel Messi that was ninth on the list with 14 million views.
YouTube’s top 10 seems to validate a recent consumer study by US research firm Clutch that came up with the somewhat unremarkable conclusion that people simply enjoy watching funny ads.
Clutch’s research found that 53 per cent of consumers are more likely to remember an ad – and buy the product – if an ad makes them laugh. But it came with caveats, too. Fifty-one per cent said that they had to know and trust the brand with the funny ad. Also, brands can’t simply play for giggles. A further fifty-one per cent said the ad still had to educate them on the brand or product, while 48 per cent agreed that funny ads are a turn-off if they couldn’t relate to it (presumably didn’t get the joke).
In a blog post from March this year titled In Defence Of Funny Ads, CCO of London agency Love Or Fear, Dave Dye, argued when it came to humorous commercials the problem wasn’t the agencies or the audiences, but rather the blame lay with the clients who viewed wit with fear or downright scepticism.
“[Funny ads] are seen as an indulgence by the agency; wasting [client’s] valuable selling time with their jokes,” Dye wrote.
“There is another theory, but it’s a bit weird. You create an ad that makes people smile. Also, because you made them smile they’ll feel warmer about you, making them even more likely to buy from you. You’re right, it sounds nuts!” Dye penned with a sarcastic quip.
Sure, funny doesn’t work for every brand but it does for many. When Foster’s in the UK ditched its long-running Aussie ‘agony aunts’ ads in 2015 – the cheeky and rather un-PC Brad and Dan (check ‘em out on YouTube if you haven’t) – the brand said it wanted to take the beer’s image more upmarket, less laddish and more female friendly after the two characters were deemed “dismissive” and “insulting” to women. The result? Sales of Foster’s fell 13 per cent and the duo returned to UK TV screens in April this year via a £6 million ($A11 million) campaign from legendary agency adam&eve/DDB.
Think of Australia’s most memorable ads – Yellow Pages’ “Jan”, Telstra’s “Great Wall”, Antz Pants’ “Sick ‘em, Rex”, Hoges’ famed “Shrimp”, Tourism Australia’s “Dundee” and a host of others – and there’s one recurring theme – they’re fun.
However, Barbara Humphries, creative director at The Monkeys, is quick to remind B&T that arguably Australia’s most famous ad was anything but a rib-tickler.
“One of the most memorable Australian ads ever was the Grim Reaper ad about HIV awareness, because no-one had seen anything like it before,” Humphries says. “While it terrified and offended many Australians, in equal measure, it started a conversation about something that wasn’t being discussed in mainstream media very openly. That image of the Grim Reaper bowling over children is imprinted in the minds of anyone who saw it.
“I’d argue that we remember any ad that moved us or provoked a reaction – whether laughter, fear, sadness or anger. The main thing is to be interesting; I don’t think it’s as binary as being either funny or earnest,” Humphries adds.
THE NEW CURRENCY IS TEARS
For Damian Pincus, founder of The Works, undoubtedly humour was what every CMO and their dog was doing when he first started his career in London in the 90s.
“The ‘humour’ thing is an interesting thing for me,” Pincus tells B&T. “When I started my career everything was funny. It was ‘Heineken refreshes the parts’, ‘Aussies couldn’t give XXXX’; that was the currency.
“But I feel there’s a new currency now and that’s in making people cry. Or, at least making people feel an emotion. It’s about the mental health of our world. These days brands need to connect emotionally with people and you have to go through a process to do that, to understand what that connection might be. That’s the currency that lots of brands are tapping into at the moment and a lot of the [industry] awards we’re seeing; a lot of the ads we now like to watch are definitely tapping into that feeling,” Pincus says.
And Pincus could well be right. It’s not really a matter of what brands and their agencies want, it’s what consumers want and all the evidence is they want brands – and their advertising – to have a purpose.
A quick look at the plethora of studies that have overtaken B&T’s inbox of late would suggest in this age of Greta Thunberg, anti-Adani and all things recyclable, it’s the consumer that’s demanding their advertising has its hook into something.
CONSUMERS WANT PURPOSE
A recent study by tech firm Blackbaud, who specialises in software for non-profit organisations found that 55 per cent of consumers are willing to pay for a product from a socially responsible company. A further 76 per cent said they’re happier at work if the business is socially aware, while 64 per cent would boycott a brand on social issues.
A September study by communications firm WE, that surveyed 80,000 people from around the globe, found that 83 per cent of respondents agreed that brands could bring stability and 74 per cent said they expected brands to take a stand on important causes.
Unsurprisingly, a study by Sydney-based independent media agency The Media Precinct found that young Australians were most likely to want brands to pursue a cause. Its study found that for a brand to be cause aware, five things need to happen:
- It had to be based on facts and communicated directly
- There had to be achievable goals
- Traditional media still works in conveying a strong message
- A brand needs to be honest and not deliver a “smoke and mirrors” strategy
- Putting your logo on something and “paying lip service” to a cause won’t cut it
For The Monkeys’ Barbara Humphries, the ‘humour versus worthy debate’ simply gets down to the message the brand wants to convey and “what problems need to be solved”.
Humphries says, what many people forget about Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad is it’s entirely in line with what the sportswear giant has always done – and that’s support athletes.
“But given the fact this wasn’t just a stance on sport, but human rights, it showed other brands that the bigger risk is in trying to be ‘safe’, trying to be all things to all people,” Humphries adds.
“The downside is – and I love this word – ‘woke washing’ where some brands attempt to show they’re suddenly sympathetic to current issues and causes in order to catch up with a world moving on without them.
“People remember the work you’ve done prior. If a brand wants to suddenly deviate and start talking earnestly about the environment, when previously they’ve been selling manufactured products in plastic wrapping, then the audience will call bullshit,” Humphries says.
ULTIMATELY, IT’S THE BOTTOMLINE
And, is so often the case, the last word on ‘funny versus worthy’ has to go to adland rabble-rouser, psychologist and Thinkerbell supremo, Adam Ferrier.
“The thing with funny in ads is it’s an issue of too many people touching too many things… trying to appease too many stakeholders,” Ferrier tells B&T.
“To be funny you need to have a point of view and that point of view needs to have a truth about it; it needs to have a provocation and it needs to have a tension about it and that can sometimes be rubbed out if too many people have a point of view on the creativity. And that could be too many people in the creative team, in the agency, in focus groups.
That can kill things a lot
of the time.
“And the argument for purpose is that some brands need it, some brands don’t. Purpose can be convenient for brands to get some sort of shared voice, some earned media. So long as it ends up in more sales and a healthier business then I don’t care if a brand has a purpose or not. The end goal should always be the health of the business,” Ferrier concludes.