Originally published December 2, 2005

Most people are convinced that advertising is easy. Most believe that they could do a better job than the ads which inundate them daily. Perhaps they could.

Some of them become advertising salespeople. Sadly, they are predictable. Their first predictable bright idea is to write ads using sex appeal. Their second predictable idea is usually to write ads using humor.

So, the typical rookie radio or television salesperson staples a typical newspaper ad to a typical Broadcast Production Order form, checks the box to indicate “Spec spot” (that is, to be produced under the speculation that the customer may buy it), and under instructions to the copywriter writes “Make it funny.”

Make it funny?


Attach an eighth page listing of all the tire sizes on sale at Bob’s Tire Barn to the affor-mentioned Broadcast Production Order form, and tell the copywriter to MAKE IT FUNNY?

“A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar…”

What’s the last thing the joke teller does before he starts this story? He looks to the left, and then to the right to make sure he’s not about to be overheard. What’s funny to some people is likely to be offensive to a significant number of others.

And yet, advertisers and account executives keep telling ad writers to be funny, and ad writers keep trying to be.

In radio or television the producer can direct the talent to inject “tones of voice” in order to cue people that something other than serious will follow. Those amusement signals are nearly impossible to do in newspapers or magazines.

Fortunately, funny in print isn’t attempted as often as in other media. Unfortunately, about one ad in ten attempts it anyway. You’ll usually see the humor in the headline. That prevents the first line of copy from expanding and elaborating on the attention-getting headline.


People can see funny faster than they can hear it, which is why we’re likely to see sight gags used in television. The major problem is the generic nature of gags. They seldom have any relevance to the product being advertised. Sight gags are bad advertising. They lead to the reason advertisers are perpetually tearing their hair out: people remembering the gag but unable to remember the product or the advertiser.


Where television tends to be gag oriented, radio tends to be joke oriented, and like gags, jokes are seldom relevant. There’s no association between the set up or the punch line of the joke and the message the seller wants desperately to plant in the mind of the listener.

The joke draws attention to itself. It draws attention away from the advertiser’s product.

The funnier it is, the sooner it will irritate on repetition, (which assumes that it was ever funny in the first place). That’s why people say “Stop me if you’ve heard this one…”

No joke is universally funny.

A sizable percentage of the population won’t be amused. Trust me, the words “childish” and “stupid” come up frequently when real people critique “humorous” ads.

Real people get confused by messages that aren’t expressed simply. Real people get offended by things that may not strike them as particularly funny. Even professional comedians tell jokes that they consider hilarious while the audience sits silently on their hands. Real people become annoyed at someone who tries to be funny, and fails.


There’s a difference between humor which appeals to men, and that which appeals to women. International advertising agency J. Walter Thompson interviewed pairs of female friends in eight countries and concluded that male humor is based on competition and impressing people around them. Women use jokes to achieve intimacy and to make people feel at ease. Men prefer gags with a punch line. Women laugh at stories that relate to their everyday lives.

Diana Coulson, director of strategic planning at J. Walter Thompson, Paris, said:

“The key thing that emerged was that women’s main source of humor is from the everyday, the little issues, stuff they observe and that happens to them. They can find humor in a household chore, or something silly that somebody says to them at work. Men use humor in a much more competitive way. Men want to be funny to show off and to get people to admire them. It’s all about scoring points, whereas with women humor is much more a way of creating an attachment, bonding and getting intimacy with people. They are instinctively enhancing their relationships.”

Humm. So men and women find different things funny? Who’d have thought?

Humor can backfire. According to marketing consultant Martin Wales:

“One laser eye surgery company was using humor in its ads, you can see them if you get redirected here. The competition capitalized on it by suggesting that there’s nothing funny about eye surgery.”

In most major cities sizable portions of the people who live there come from other countries. Humor frequently doesn’t translate from one sub-culture to another. Instead of being funny these ads are confusing. They’re frequently offensive. Worse yet, no matter how much attention they draw, these ads seldom sell enough product. Following the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” campaign, William J. McEwen, Author of Married to the Brand wrote in the Gallup Management Journal:

“In a recent move that surprised relatively few industry analysts, Taco Bell announced that it was firing the advertising agency responsible for its award-winning TV commercials of the past few years. According to the company, the advertising that had built strong recognition as well as profitable merchandising opportunities for the Taco Bell Chihuahua was apparently unable to move product sales. Taco Bell sales have been reportedly flat — a situation clearly unacceptable to its management and to its stockholders..”

Then there’s humor’s short shelf-life. You’re going to have to replace funny ads much more frequently because of the burn out factor.

But you know the biggest reason jokes and gags fail? Their primary job is to persuade someone to purchase something from the company paying for the ad. And as we already mentioned, any attempt at communication that draws attention away from the core message is beyond stupid. When it’s your money being wasted, it’s criminal.

The father of modern copywriting, Claude Hopkins, understood the purpose of advertising very well. In 1923 Hopkins explained:

“Don’t lessen respect for your self or your article by any attempt at frivolity. People do not patronize a clown. There are two things about which men should not joke. One is business, one is home.”

John Caples, author of Tested Advertising Methods, observed:

“The two most influential books in the world have no humor in them: the Bible and the Sears Catalog!”

Jay Conrad Levinson, author of the Guerilla Marketing series of business books said:

“Marketing is not a stage for humor. If you use humor in your marketing, people will recall your funny joke, but not your compelling offer. If you use humor, your campaign will be funny the first and maybe the second time. After that, the humor will be grating and will hinder the very concept that makes marketing successful – repetition.”

But, with a contrary opinion comes David Ogilvy.

“I think this was true in Hopkins day, and I have reason to believe that it remained true until recently, but the latest wave of factor-analysis reveals that humor can now sell. This came as a great relief to me; I had always hated myself for rejecting the funny commercials submitted for my approval.

“But I must warn you that very, very few writers can write funny commercials which ARE funny. Unless you are one of the few, don’t try.”

Four famous advertising men with interesting, and slightly contradictory opinions. Are there facts? Surprisingly, considering how many multiple tens of millions of dollars are spent on humorous advertising, there’s precious little research done on it. At the least, every ad using humor should be tested against a serious ad to see which pulls better response.

One such study was published in Journalism Quarterly in 1989. Bob T.W. Wu, Kenneth E. Crocker, and Martha Rogers did in a test of print ads for facial tissue and for athletic shoes. They found no difference in appeal or persuasiveness, but found “the attitude toward the ad” was higher for the humorous version than for the serious one.

Did you catch that? People found the product no more appealing. They were not persuaded to switch brands. The only reported that they found the AD more entertaining.

Our objective is not to entertain, it’s to sell.

Can humor sell your product?



Most businesses should not use humor in their advertising. On the other hand, I willingly admit humor can be used quite effectively to sell product. Not jokes, but humor. A joke is only funny the first time. Humor is appreciated every time a listener hears it.

A humorous touch can engage, and involve, the prospective customer. An ad that shows the advertiser’s sense of humor (or charm, or personality, or playfulness, or likability) frequently resonates in the hearts and minds of the public. When that happens, advertising gains credibility, and sales usually trend significantly up.

The major problem is that at any given time there are only, what? Maybe a dozen people who can make humor work? Humorous ads are difficult to write well. It’s even harder for that well-written script to survive the treatment of producers, directors, and actors.

What about your product, and the way it connects with the self-image of the consumer. High involvement products tend to have a longer purchase cycle. Prospective customers are more likely to search for hard facts. They won’t find those facts in a humorous ad. Unknown, expensive, or potentially embarrassing products won’t sell well with humor, either.

Fun advertising has a much easier job selling snack foods, beers, sodas, cigarettes, movies, and music than it does in selling high ticket items. Fun advertising tends to work best with inexpensive disposable products that are themselves “fun.”

Should you use humor in your advertising?

Probably not. You’ll likely do far better when you stop trying to entertain and focus on offering benefits and spelling out value. (Note: I’m trying hard to talk you out of it).

However, if you insist, here are some things that might mitigate the damage.

  • No sight gags. No jokes. Use humor to be friendly, rather than funny. When humor is subtle it’s usually more effective and suffers from less burnout than something more overt.
  • Use humor to attract customers, and make sure it doesn’t distract from the product. Use humor to reinforce and support your basic premise. Make it relevant to the product you’re selling.
  • Before you attempt humor, be sure you know your customers. Research if it’s available, personal observation always.
  • Do not use humor to attempt to deceive your customer. Humor intensifies people’s reactions. When they find you’ve not been truthful, you can expect outright hostility.
  • Don’t over-analyze humor. It’s either funny or it’s not. The best humor comes from the edge, where it can easily be offensive.
  • At the same time, don’t rush your first idea into the marketplace. Sleep on it.
  • Be thought provoking. Engage your customers’ imaginations. Let your customer experience “getting it.”
  • Be careful not to let prospective customers see themselves as the butt of your joke. Vonage’s “People do stupid things” campaign wouldn’t work as “You do stupid things.”
  • Use humor about situations, not people. Whoever they are and wherever they come from, people will usually identify with a situation.

And above all, never lose sight of your purpose in advertising. Your purpose isn’t entertainment. Your purpose is to sell the product. Will humor motivate people to buy? Then do it. If it won’t, then don’t use it when you’re fishing for customers.

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

Got questions about writing ad copy, with or without humor? Call Chuck at 304-523-0163. Or “E” him at ChuckMcKay@ChuckMcKayOnLine.com.