what has happened to humour in advertising?

Issue 62 | March 2022

Recently I took a look at the 982 campaigns that won an award of some sort at Cannes Lions in 2021. I counted just three-and-a-half funny ads.

Of the 43 Grands Prix awarded, 34 were concerned with purpose of one sort or another. Only nine had clear commercial intent and of these just one had what you might call a lightness of touch.

That was David Madrid's work for Burger King, 'Stevenage Challenge'.

The fact that so few award-winning campaigns were actually trying to sell anything and the absence of humour are directly linked, I believe.

I'll develop this thought a bit later. For the moment, though, you might like to know what the three-and-a-half funny ads were.

First, Geico "Clogging" from the Martin Agency, Richmond VA. Interestingly, the only 30-second TV commercial given any sort of award. The average length of ad in the Film category was one minute and 42 seconds.

Next, Saatchi & Saatchi sponsorship idents for Film on Four. Over 60 little ads showing telephone operators at Direct Line taking calls about calamitous events in the films the audience are about to see. "You've lost your ring...yes, I'm sure it's precious."


Third, and a Grand Prix winner but for Creative Strategy, Cheetos "Can't Touch This" from Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

The half-a-chuckle was Droga5 London with "Ironing" for Amazon Alexa. A man ironing his shirt gets a death scene to be replayed four or five times to the actors' exasperation by instructing Alexa to "play that scene again."

It's amusing. You smile. But you don't laugh out loud. Or, at least, I didn't.

Humour is to a large extent subjective. But by and large our jokes reflect the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves. And in the UK the cultural milieu has changed significantly in the last fifty years.

CDP's spoof of the movie "Zulu" would today fall foul of at least 22 of the regulations demanded these days by the Cinema Advertising Association. An obviously white actor blacked up? Oh dear. It isn't reported if the ad caused offence back in 1973 but it certainly does now. "Out-dated stereotyping" is one comment I've found.

Talking of stereotyping, Maureen Lipman was catapulted to stardom in the 1980s by a series of BT ads in which she played Beattie, an overtly Jewish mother.

Could the ads run today?

Not a chance. Even if the scripts got okayed by the regulators, no client would want to risk their careers on a campaign that would be vilified as anti-semitic despite being written by a gifted Jewish copywriter, Richard Phillips, and played by a Jewish actress of wonderful ability.

Lipman herself is vocal on the subject of cancel culture. Comedy, she says, is in danger of "being wiped out." Social media has created a cultural milieu in which critical judgment has evolved into censorship.

J.K. Rowling's views on gender have been distorted hideously and she has been subjected to insults and threats on an industrial scale.

Even when brands try do the right things because they turn out to be very wrong for some.

Mars Maltesers, for instance. They've been running a campaign that scores points for diversity and inclusion but which has been consistently the most-complained-about advertising in the UK.

Storme Toolis has cerebral palsy and in one commercial she tells her gawping friends, "We were back at his getting a little frisky. My hands may have been wandering, slightly. And then I started having a spasm. Which he misinterprets."

Not a belly laugh. But nicely written, well observed, a disabled woman making fun of herself and her sex life. To the horror of many on Mumsnet. Bad taste. Cringe. How is this allowed on TV?

It is the very fact they are funny that winds the Malteser critics up. It was the same with "Life of Brian". Because it poked fun at religion, it incensed more than a few bishops in a way that Nietzsche didn't when he declared "God is dead". Equally blasphemous. But no-one tried to ban his books. Or try to kill him, as two Muslim brothers did kill twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They died because they printed several cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

As far as I know, no-one has yet died because they wrote a crap ad. Though many deserved to. (That's a joke, by the way.) But the culture wars of modern Britain are leading not just to more complaints about advertising but more complaints to the BBC and to Ofcom about everything that's on TV. When people come across an opinion they disagree with, the default behaviour now is rage.

The world seems to have become increasingly binary. Black and white. Take trans. As issues of our time go it seems to me to be very grey. But when a comedian cracks a joke about it, recognising some of the incongruities of gender identity, it seems to me they are vilified for not taking sides.

The Trump presidency was arguably the most polarising in American history. It was bad for comedy. Yes, he's orange, ha ha ha. But if a good joke is an observation that reveals a truth, then Trump's permanent state of falsity gave comedians nothing to latch on to. His lies were so many and so unashamed that he defied satire.

When anyone did give it a shot, though, Trump shot back. On Twitter he branded Stephen Colbert a "low life", Jimmy Fallon as being "whimpering" and Jimmy Kimmel for being "terrible". It's hard to accept that the single most powerful man in the world could be so thin-skinned. But Trump did have a precedent. Plenty of observers have found parallels with Nazi Germany, when, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, humour was effectively stamped out.

I realise the thread connecting Maltesers to Hitler is tenuous. But there is a thread and the spinner of it is a psychiatrist and writer called Iain McGilchrist. His essay "The Divided Brain" is subtitled "Why Are We So Unhappy?" It is a follow-up to his big book "The Master and his Emissary" in which he resurrects the discredited theory of the left-brain/right-brain divide. Basically, he argues that the left brain is obsessed with detail. In its insistence on logic, it is mechanistic and repetitive and because it is in the ascendance, it is robbing modern society of all its deeper human values. The right hemisphere is where creativity lives. Right-brained people in a right-brained society are less linear in their thinking. They understand context and have a broader understanding of how we all fit together in our complex world. They can and do laugh at it.

If Western society has become increasingly dour, advertising too has become humourless. This is a theory developed by Orlando Wood in two books, "Lemon" and "Look Out!".

The sort of ads I used to write back in the 80s that told tongue-in-cheek little stories about people interacting with brands are now rare as spotted badgers. Wood compares and contrasts a 1981 ad for Heineken with a 2019 ad for Budweiser.

In the former, we see a gentleman in 18th century dress sitting by a lakeside. We hear a slow and measured voice. "I walked about a bit on my own....oh no. I strolled around without anyone else. Oh dear oh dear." We see a hand pick up a pint of lager. It exits frame for a moment only to reappear and put down the empty glass. Music swells. "I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o'er vales and hills..."

Classic advertising paradigm. Problem resolved thanks to the product.

Now for Budweiser 2021. Close up photography of the can. Voice: "Introducing Budweiser Zero. Zero percent alcohol, zero grammes of sugar, full Budweiser flavour. A refreshing alcohol-free brew that tastes like the real zzzzzz."

The Heineken campaign ran for over twenty years. It was built on a product truth (refreshment) rather than on the sort of ethical proposition that is all the rage right now.

The Budweiser campaign... well, it isn't a campaign.

It's an ad that ran for a month or two. And therein is a major problem. In a 2019 report published by the UK's IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), "The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness", econometricians Peter Field and Les Binet worry that Brand Managers are becoming increasingly short-term in their thinking. In commissioning short-term, product-centric advertising that delivers measurable results satisfyingly rapidly they are forgoing long-term brand building. The net result is an overall decline in the effectiveness of advertising.

If Steve Harrison is to be believed in his book "Can't Sell, Won't Sell", the problem is compounded by CMOs running ads about the brand's purpose rather than about its products.

What history tells us (and what marketers seem to have forgotten) is they can do both. Shift stuff and build the brand, just as Heineken, Hamlet, Walker's, Marmite, Compare the Market and others have done, using wit and charm as the tools for success.

In fact, looking back at the three-and-a-half funny ads of Cannes 2021, there is a brilliant example of a brand laughing all the way to the bank.


Geico ads have been winning awards for The Martin Agency for over a decade. More to the point, Geico ads have been winning friends and attracting customers for over a decade. While 'Infestation of Aunts' only made it to the Shortlist at Cannes, it's racked up over 28 million views on YouTube. Moreover, Geico's YouTube channel has nearly two million subscribers. Two million subscribers! Incredible. And why? Because people are going there to watch funny videos and have a laugh.

People don't hate advertising. They hate bad advertising and Geico is the proof of it.

When a brand is consistently funny and offbeat and sweet-natured, people will opt in to watch the ads. Most brand managers wonder how they can prevent people from opting out but someone at Geico has been looking the other way down the telescope.

Instead of taking fright during lockdown and getting serious, Geico kept up with the silliness. Hooray. The daft 'Fencing Problem' film picked up 24 million views. Compare and contrast with Dove's multiple award-winning 'Courage is Beautiful' video, which has just 199,000 views.

If you want purpose, isn't giving people a smile more than purposeful enough? Especially since, in Geico's case anyway, it makes enough money to pay for the company's many CSR projects. In 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported "Geico's 2020 underwriting profit (as) more than doubling above the level recorded in 2019."

Humour works.

Ask Suzy Batiz. She's the entrepreneur who founded Poo Pourri, a company that does nothing more than make fragrances for lavatories and washrooms. She had the bottle to buy a video written and directed by Joel Ackerman at Ackermania with a potty-mouthed Bethany Woodruff dropping as many poo puns as possible in two minutes.

36 million views. $440 million in sales.

Relatively small beer compared with Mike Dubin's kerching moment. He wrote, produced and starred in a funny ad for his company Dollar Shave Club. It cost less than $4,500 and made him a billion when he sold to Unilever.

Michael Dubin, owner of Dollar Shave Club, studied improv comedy for eight years. He wrote the ad that got 25 million views.

"Girls Don't Poop" cost $25,000 to make. Within a week it had created $4 million of back-orders. Within a year sales were up 80%.

One warning, though. Writing funny isn't easy. Dubin spent eight years learning how comedy works, whereas most advertising copywriters haven't. So many ads end with a limp gag.

John Cleese once told me that 90% of the secret to writing comedy is character. "What's the other 10%?", I asked.


It's what makes 'Fawlty Towers' funny. Basil. When you read the scripts, there are no jokes. There's just a middle-aged man suffering agonies in a job he despises among people he looks down upon with a wife who frightens him.

Good luck to the American production company who are about to remake the series and, in their wisdom, are "keeping it exactly the same" except for writing Basil out of it.

In advertising, creating a personality and allowing it to develop over a series of ads has led to some of the UK's most-loved commercials. My boss back in BMP days knew this.

He created George the Bear for Hofmeister, the Honey Monster for Sugar Puffs and he turned the nicest man in football, Gary Lineker, into a crisp thief thus making a small company in Leicester called Walker's the most valuable FMCG brand in Britain.

In the same agency, other creative people dreamt up an incompetent spy for Barclaycard. It was Rowan Atkinson playing the wannabe Bond who spotted Latham's potential and turned him into Johnny English. The three Johnny English films have been worth nearly $500 million so far in box-office receipts.

Rowan Atkinson drives a McLaren F1. Also a Mercedes SLSAMG. And an Aston Martin Zagato. And a Bentley Mulsanne.

If there's a lesson in all of this, it's that marketers would do well to lighten up.

Frankly, gravitas is wearying. We really don't need to be told any longer how grim things are. And, developing the theme, I'm hoping this year's advertising awards juries will also acknowledge that they're not exactly in the front line when it comes to saving the world.

Three-and-a-half laughs is an indictment of our industry. Seriously.

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