Of all the YouTube video clips that I’ve saved over time, Jerry Seinfeld’s bit on airplane travel is still among my favorites.
I am astonished at how spot on he is about things I find bothersome when flying: the pilot who drowns us with needless information about the route the plane is taking, seat belt instructions─“in case you haven’t been in a car since 1965”─and those mechanized cheerleader motions that flight attendants use to show us where the exit doors are. But these are mere buildups to the bit about airplane bathrooms and the point at which I lose it. Well, not lose it lose it. Just enough to get my wife to ask, “are you watching Seinfeld talk about those tiny slots for used razor blades [in airplane bathrooms] again?” followed by “I know! WHO shaves on airplanes?! Please don’t explain it again. I get it already!”
Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, the late Robin Williams, Chris Rock and many other stand-ups specialize in getting us to laugh by using what is commonly referred to as observational humor, universally familiar situations that we don’t consciously note. In other words, we laugh at situations that are below our level of conscious awareness but are identifiable as real. When you think of all the people that make up a comedian’s live audience and multiply that number by perhaps $100 a ticket, you might begin to appreciate how valuable observational humor is.
Dr. Robert Povine, a leading neuroscientist, has spent an entire career getting serious about laughter. Among other findings, he claims that laughter is really a social phenomenon. Specifically, he states that we are thirty times more likely to laugh in the company of others than we are by ourselves. Not withstanding the fact that he may have never seen Seinfeld’s bit about airplane bathrooms, his finding does make intuitive sense.
Among other findings, Povine also discovered that laughter doesn’t have to be prompted by a formalized joke. It can be in response to something as mundane as, “don’t you just love when your dog pukes on the couch before company comes over?” Laughter, fake or real, is often a substitute way of communicating, “I understand, I can relate, and thank’s for calling attention to an identifiable situation.” Laughing is just easier.
For advertisers, the sociological phenomenon of observational humor underscores the importance of calling attention to very real, identifiable, everyday situations that lay below conscious awareness. What’s more, being observational doesn’t have to be practiced for the purpose of making audiences laugh. Besides, helping an audience feel understood is less risky than going for a fall-off-the-couch guffaw.
The operative word is “real” as in genuine, or authentic. I once worked for a food giant who insisted that every commercial have a “bite and smile” scene. You know, that’s where the husband bites into a sandwich and looks lovingly at his wife, as if to say, “what would life be without you and your choice of mayonnaise.” Then there are those erectile dysfunction ads, like the one that shows the husband getting “in the mood” while he and his partner are painting a bench. God, I hope they wash their hands!
The point is that real is better than unreal. Like in a commercial I recently saw for a regional fast food chicken restaurant. The commercial sets out to create awareness the restaurant now offers a fish sandwich. It does this by showing two guys eating fish sandwiches as they are menaced by swarming seagulls with beaks banging on the restaurant’s windows. Clearly an exaggeration: a Hitchcock-like send-up used to get us to think every fish sandwich comes with a seagull invasion.
Compare this to a different commercial showing something as simply relatable (and far less inexpensive) as a guy and a girl on a first date. The girl can’t stop from being distracted by a speck of tartar sauce on the guy’s chin as he’s devouring his sandwich. He finally wipes his chin to her relief. When she gets home, she looks in the mirror and notices that she’s had a piece of lettuce stuck between her teeth. It may not be bird-hitting-the-window, slapstick funny. But whether we’ve been in a similar situation or not, it is a memorable portrayal of an embarrassment that anyone can relate to with the potential of leading to stand-out advertising.
Taking a clue from successful comedians, there are plenty of life-as-we-know-it situations that can create stand-out advertising and result from either needing or using a given product. We just have to do what the comedians do. Observe.