In this age of new media, advertising is basically everywhere. Unless you’re devoutly Amish—which I suspect you aren’t, since you’re reading this—your brain is relentlessly subjected to a virtual tug-o-war, jerked in infinite directions by advertisers. Ads are essentially ubiquitous in television and print alone, but new technologies lead to new marketing opportunities. With smartphones, tablets, and whatever gizmo was just invented as I type this sentence, people are constantly, and voluntarily, exposing themselves to various types of marketing. Such ads are not only tailored to specific consumers, but are also often a mere nose-length away from their over strained eyeballs. A lot to process, I know.
But while this concept may strike some as the stuff of which Don Draper types have dreamed, for advertisers and consumers alike, it can be a waking nightmare.
Like it or not, the world we inhabit is light years away from Mad Men’s smoky, bourbon-soaked corner offices: There are now hundreds of television networks instead of the original three or four; the Internet, namely social media like Facebook and Twitter, dominates popular culture; niches are created and filled almost daily. It’s arguable that Draper and his cohorts would wet their flat-fronted slacks if transported to the new millennium—and not just because of women’s lib. Thousands of ads attempt to get a given consumer’s attention every day, diluting the market and desensitizing the mind.
As a result, standing out from the crowd and grabbing one’s attention—let alone holding it—has never been more vital or more difficult. So instead of simply stating “Buy Brand X”, copywriters need to adapt and get creative (gasp!). Advertisers have their work cut out for them, sure, but it’s not out of the question to make a mark.
One key aspect to some of the most iconic ad campaigns of all time, an aspect easier said than done, is humor. Despite the fact that many industries shy away from humorous advertising to avoid seeming flippant, it is undoubtedly an effective tool. Slogans like “Where’s the beef?” and “Got milk?” used wit to stick to the zeitgeist. GEICO’s numerous campaigns in more recent years are an epitome of this idea. If advertisers can learn to harness comedy into new media such as Twitter and Facebook—brands like Cap’n Crunch and Oreo, among others, are early adapters—this new frontier of marketing doesn’t have to be so overwhelming.
Marilyn Monroe once said if you can make a girl laugh, you can make her do anything. Whether this assessment rings true or not, it has been empirically proven that humor helps the average consumer retain the message of an ad. Laughter may or may not be the best medicine, but it’s certainly in the running for the best memory aid.
However, humor itself is not so empirical. Just as Adam Sandler makes 12-year-olds ROFL (roll on floor laughing) while their parents SOCRTE (sit on couch rolling their eyes), no single ad is universally funny. For advertisers, humor straddles both a fine line and a slippery slope. Entertaining one demographic without irking the other, getting the message across effectively while making a good impression, and not hurting brand image with perceived over-frivolity are just several of the issues faced by advertisers taking stabs at humor.
And even though successful humor in an ad will endear a consumer to a brand, it does not necessarily result in a sale. Back to GEICO, for instance: They’ve pounded their brand into water cooler conversation, spending a reported $994 million on advertising alone in 2011, but how many people that love the Gecko or Hump Day Camel are actual GEICO clients, or even in the market for insurance for that matter? Bottom line, times are changing, and advertising is not immune. Humor is a great way to get your foot in the door, but you still have to sell your product or service once inside. There are no shortcuts in advertising— and that’s no joke.