It’s no secret that humor is a powerful tool for marketing. It’s everywhere. Or at least it’s in every other commercial. Comedy has such a constant impact on advertising that people literally watch championship football games just to see what the funniest commercials of the year will be.
Writing of any kind is storytelling, and the best stories tend to make people laugh. Once you’ve made someone laugh, you’ve managed to transform their brain chemistry for a moment, and in that moment, they’re listening to whatever you say next. If what you say next happens to be “Buy Doritos,” your audience is less likely to feel tricked, and more likely to say, “Dang! You got me. I AM thinking about buying Doritos now.”
We all remember the hits. Where’s the beef?! (Wendy’s). However, most jokes are forgettable, a lot of jokes are bad, and some jokes are even horrible. Trying to be funny in marketing campaigns is a high-risk, high-reward game—and if people aren’t laughing, everyone loses. But when a copywriter figures out that magical comedy formula, the result can be incredible. Here are seven times someone got it right, and why.
- Mac Vs PC: The classic “Get a Mac” campaign created for Apple Inc., ran from 2006-2009, with the cool, young hipster ‘Mac’ played by Justin Long, and the awkward, Bill Gates doppelganger ‘PC’ played by John Hodgman. The concept was simple. Put these two “computers” next to each other in front of a simple white backdrop, and compare them in a tongue and cheek way. Like any good roast joke, the ads were a perfect balance of funny and true, without being cruel. For example, when the PC guy sneezes because he’s caught a virus, the Mac guy doesn’t laugh at him. He offers help, but also lets his ‘friend’ know that Macs don’t get viruses. This also follows a basic “Yes – AND” rule of improvised comedy. ‘Yes, PC, I agree with you. AND I have this feature as well, which makes you look silly.’ While some critics still commented that the ads were mean-spirited, thousands of people praised the campaign, and thousands more bought Macs.
Honorable mention! In 2021, as Apple transitioned from Intel to Silicon, Intel came out with another ad called “Justin Gets Real,” bringing back the actor. This time, he’s with PC. Comedy lovers love a good callback!
- Dollar Shave Club: “Our blades are f*** ing great.” In 2012, Dollar Shave Club was the little startup that could…make you laugh, and its viral video, starring Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin, launched the company into wild success—seemingly overnight. The ad brought in thousands of orders, millions of views, and a few years later the company sold for $1 billion. This was all because of a simple video featuring Dubin walking around his warehouse, bragging about how great his razors are. The video was made in one day, thought up by Dubin and a small team of other UCB improvisers (he had spent some time at UCB, himself). When you watch this one, note the constant visual gags, quick pacing, irreverent tone, and the number of jokes Dubin manages to pack into one minute. This is viral video magic 101!
- KFC: “FCK.” In 2018, the unthinkable happened. KFC ran out of chicken—which sounds like Colonel Sanders’ fever dream—but it really happened. Thankfully, a copywriter had a brilliant, and simple idea. A play on words. “FCK. We’re sorry.” This was followed by another simple sentence. “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” The casual tone makes it seem like KFC isn’t a corporation, but a lovable roommate who you want to forgive for forgetting to pick up chicken at the store. As people, we can all relate to the practice of using humor to diffuse tension, and in this case, it worked.
- Extra Gum: For When It’s Time. This Extra ad does something really special—it somehow makes people laugh about a global pandemic while living through one. The concept isn’t complex. It’s a fantasy of what it will be like when everyone can go outside again. Spoiler alert? Everyone is making out. While the idea is simple, the execution is an elaborate fantasy. Visual gags, big acting choices, a large cast, and a silly song choice all make this the cathartic and hilarious post-quarantine scene we’ve been waiting for.
- Fast Food Twitter: If you log onto Twitter any given day, you can find the Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s accounts responding to tweets with extremely online, meme-fluent, passive-aggressive Twitter personas. These accounts are consistently funny, they often go viral, and they frequently “ratio” other corporate accounts’ posts. We’d like to make a special shout out to Burger King for making jokes about how much it catches on fire, but the fast food Twitter GOAT award goes to Popeyes.In 2019, Popeyes famously threw a tweet jab at Chick-Fil-a, launching a Twitter-wide debate about which fast food restaurant had the superior fried chicken sandwich. The result was that thousands of people joined in on the conversation—it became a trending topic and Popeyes restaurants were so packed that they (also) ran out of chicken (FCK).What makes fast food Twitter comedy win? Relatability. By taking on a young and snarky tone, keeping up with trending memes, and engaging with other Twitter users, these companies use Twitter as an individual Twitter comedian might. Twitter users know that corporations aren’t people, but they will suspend their disbelief for a laugh. They’ll buy fried chicken, too.
- Geico’s Gecko: While fast food has the mass appeal of mouthwatering accessibility, when you’re selling something as exciting as car insurance, humor helps to get people’s attention. Geico did this beautifully, starting in 1999, with a gecko originally voiced by Kelsey Grammer. He frustratingly tries to announce that he is a gecko, not to be confused with Geico, a car insurance company that can save you money. It’s a misdirection, wordplay, and a British person voicing a lizard, all in the name of something completely unrelated. It also wasn’t Geico’s first choice, but they went with it due to a SAG strike that prevented hiring actors for live action.Ever since making that commercial, Geico has leaned into funny advertising that completely subverts expectations as to what you would expect from car insurance. Presenting absurdist humor followed by, “15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance,” succeeds at giving this company the advantage it wanted—ubiquitous name recognition. When you think of that funny, relatable gecko, you think of Geico. Now I’m thinking about Geico. I don’t even have a car!
- Budweiser: Whassup. The classic. The GOAT. No offense, Skittles, Snickers, Doritos, and any other football game commercial creator, but this is arguably the greatest Superbowl commercial of all time. Airing from 1999 to 2002, Budweiser’s “Whassup” was based on a short film which featured a few friends saying, “What’s up” to each other in a comical way. In the commercial version, they were also all agreeing that they were “having a bud.” That was it! And it was an instant hit, because this was relatable comedy at it’s finest. The repetition of simple phrases throughout the ad and great comedic acting turned it into something that almost felt like a catchy song you wanted to sing with your friends. And people did—“Wazzzzzzzup” became a common pop culture reference and greeting for many years.
The short film director, Charles Stone III and cast ended up getting back together in 2008 to remake the ad as a campaign video for President Barack Obama. Also effective! That guy won.
So what can we learn from these comedy classics? If you want to be funny, generally, less is more. Keep it simple, keep it short, be as relatable as you can, and don’t take yourself too seriously. As a writer, it’s OK to be yourself a little bit when you’re trying to be funny. It’s easier to laugh when a joke is coming from the voice of someone you feel like you might actually know.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, remember that anyone with a really funny idea probably had 1,000 unfunny ideas before they perfected their comedy recipe. So keep trying, and break a leg!
Want copy that makes your readers cry with laughter? Contact the copywriting team at MarketSmiths.