I was talking to my brilliant friend, James Intriligator, and he was explaining why advertisers need to be careful using humor in their ads. As entertaining or outright funny as an ad may be, the joke can distract from the message.
The example Intriligator used was a commercial in which the punchline coincided with the display of the company logo, but when viewers were later questioned about the commercial, they could only recall the joke—not the advertised product or company.
I brought up Intriligator’s comment while talking with Baratunde Thurston during this week’s episode of our Marketing Smarts podcast. Thurston is a stand-up comic and was director of digital at The Onion, so he’s no stranger to comedy. He’s actually gotten paid to do it! And he is also the keynote speaker for the B2B Forum in Boston (shameless plug: Save $300 if you register before August 8!).
Thurston is also the author of How to Be Black, a book that is at once a personal memoir and a satirical reflection on the very serious issue of race in America. I wanted to know if he thought that, by casting racial stereotypes and their impact on himself and others in a humorous light, he ran the risk of blunting his critique of racism itself.
“I don’t agree, generally speaking, with that criticism,” Thurston replied. “I think there’s very little risk of satire… disconnecting people from the trauma and the reality and the weight of the truth that it’s exposing.”
Still, he acknowledged, “There is some risk to that. I just think the upside is probably greater than that risk, which is, you provide maybe a bit of escape—which might be necessary to sustain one’s sanity.”
In support of his view—and against my own, when you really look at it—I pointed out that, in Jonathan Gottschall’s most recent book, he shows how works of fiction are often more able to change social attitudes and create a greater sense of empathy than well-researched studies that trot out established facts to make the case for social justice or social change.
Thurston concurred saying, “People will pay attention to an entertainer, maybe more, in an absolute or relative sense, than they would… someone spouting out facts on a street corner.
“The fictional author, the satirist, the comedian, the artist,” he went on to say, “can bypass some of those natural defenses mechanisms [which spring up when someone tries to convince us through argumentation] to get below the surface.”
While insisting that it’s not up to entertainers alone to change society—jokes all by themselves won’t put an end to racism—Thurston said, “Everyone contributes what they have and I think the satirist and the comedian have something pretty unique—and more valuable than not—to offer.”
What’s been your experience? Either in a political or a traditional marketing context, do you think that humor helps get the message across? Or does it run the risk of reducing the message to a joke?
(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Teeth Wind Up)