Worth The Pun-ishment? The Role of Wordplay in Marketing Copy

In our frantic marketing world, it can sometimes be good to have a laugh. And what better tonic is there than laughing at ourselves—so how’s this to raise a smile:

 “Why do cab drivers make good marketers? They can really drive traffic.” 

Nothing? How about this one? 

“What’s a pirate’s favorite type of content? A webin-AAAAR!” 

If either of those managed to spark just the hint of a smirk, even amid news of pandemic and financial meltdown, then great. But behind the silliness is an important question: are puns like this actually useful as a marketing strategy? After all, the ultimate point of marketing is not to make you laugh—its to drive traffic, leads, sales, and hopefully make your brand seem thoughtful along the way.

Stop being so pun-professional 

That reference to thoughtfulness is no accident. Even before deciding whether a pun can help make your brand more popular, you need to think about the cultural context in which it’s going to appear. Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 emergency provides a hurricane of bad examples. Less sensitive marketers are spamming audiences with glib references to “going viral” and how appearances “on the surface” need to be wiped down with Clorex. Not only are the jokes themselves trite, they’re also drearily callous.

Context is just as important in less dramatic situations. If you’re writing for a high-powered financial firm, for instance, it’s inappropriate to make puns about their services. They risk making you seem crass and unprofessional. No one wants to entrust their money to a clown.  Puns should also be left at the door when marketing for law firms. Sweep in with a gag about “the long harm of the law” and defendants will probably go for another attorney. 

Here comes the pun

Even in industries where puns are more acceptable—think startups or hip consumer brands—the sort of gag you go for is important too. For mass market products, some jokes risk being too subtle to get their point across. I know this from personal experience, when I wrote for a food delivery startup. After hours of thought, I was immensely proud of my “Welcome To The New Order” headline. 

But ultimately my pride had to give way to my job. In itself, after all, the point of marketing isn’t to generate witty one-liners. It’s to advance business. And for tired commuters just hungry for a burger, or stressed out restaurateurs desperate to eek out a little more profit, asking them to grasp a subtle gag about “orders” is just counterproductive. 

Of course, that hardly means witty puns are never allowed. If you want your brand to seem fun and accessible, puns are just the trick. One of my favorites is offered up by the Dollar Shave Club: “Shave Time. Shave Money”. Electrolux, the Swedish vacuum maker, came up with the similarly jaunty “Nothing Sucks Like An Electrolux”. 

The very cleverest puns, meanwhile, can help their brands and their audiences ooze sophistication. A particularly good example comes from across the Atlantic. The Economist, magazine of choice for a certain type of debonair, globetrotting liberal, reels readers in with puns galore. With lines like “Some like it yacht” and “pressure peers” it’s able to conjure a witty, cosmopolitan air in just a few words—and make the reader feel smart too. 

Are you having pun?

Jokes like these are clearly a delight, which raises an interesting possibility. Perhaps we’re drawn to puns by something more fundamental than the words themselves? According to a study by researchers at the University of Windsor in Canada, the best puns stimulate both the left and right sides of the brain, focused on language and visuals respectively. The left side kicks in first, parsing what we’re reading—followed by the right which notices the wordplay. In other words: expectation plus incongruity equals humor. 

Put another way, adding puns to your marketing strategy is not just a way to give your brand a personality, it’s the verbal equivalent of giving your audience a dose of amphetamines. Even so, you should never forget that cardinal rule: context is everything. So even if you get a kick out from writing one-liners—and your audience gets a thrill from reading them—stop and think before you put pun to paper. 

Want your own puntastic brand story? The wits at our copywriting agency will give you plenty to smile about. 

 

Andrea is originally from London, and came to New York after a stint in journalism. He loves everything to do with writing—as well as obscure language facts, decent wine, and chocolate cake.

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