question of the week

Are you having a laugh? Why adland is using humour again

The advertising industry has regained its appetite for making people smile. We find out why

By conor nichols

Humour is working its way back into advertising. Whether it is a step away from the post-pandemic era, the cost of living crisis or just sentimental ads in general, an increasing amount of creative agencies are using playfulness to gain the attention of a nation that arguably does not have a lot to smile about.

Covid 19 itself was no laughing matter and a flurry of ads reflected this at the time. Now, isolation and lockdowns have been replaced by a financial squeeze and a host of political controversies - so why is the advertising industry tapping into humour again? What does this reappearance of funny ads say about the national mood? Is wittiness more effective in helping campaigns to stand out in an increasingly cluttered world?

We ask why.

David Masterman, deputy executive creative director, VCCP

I can remember seeing Levi’s "Creek" in the cinema. 300 people laughing, bang on the reveal of the old guy as he swims into shot. I thought: “Wow, I want my ads to do that!”

Humour has always been our deadliest weapon.

It’s a direct line straight to the heart. It bypasses all the protective armour. If a consumer laughs, or even just smiles internally, you’ve connected. Which means your comms are working harder than more than 90 odd percent of the dross that’s out there.

Loads of brands set out to be your mate, and well, I don’t know about yours, but my mates make me laugh. 

Rather than a mysterious rise in humour, I think it’s more accurate to see the pandemic as a short exception. Clearly belly laughs in 2020 would have been a bit tone-deaf. 

But as soon as everyone put away their identikit, empathetic, tinkly-piano ads, there was a massive need for a smile or two. And now, with us up to our necks in the financial squeeze, it is much the same. 

We owe it to our consumers to reward them for giving us their attention. Make them smile. It might not make them love you. But they’re more likely to buy if they don’t hate you.

Simon Gregory, joint chief strategy officer, BBH

I’m a strat, so I’m going to do two things: change the question, and talk in threes.

The real question for me, is why did humour disappear for so long? We know it entertains, we know it cuts through and we know it works. Isn’t it daft not to lean on it? Why did it decline?

I’ve three theories:

Firstly, we forgot how to define audiences properly. Humour, by its nature, defines its own crowd. What some people find funny, others won’t. That’s a strength, not a weakness as it breeds engagement, love and loyalty between comics/comedies and its followers. The more we shift to flabby definitions such as ‘GenZ’ or ‘busy mums’ the more we’re missing out on the edges, insights and quirks of audiences that we can appeal to. Good luck trying to make Prince George and Lil Pump cackle at the same gag.

Second, we forgot how to use research properly. Proper research loves humour. Agencies and clients that haven’t immersed themselves in research tools don’t. Understanding how testing actually works (the methodology, the pros, the cons, experiencing it personally, following the clues, hearing what’s not said, etc) used to be a prerequisite for a job in marketing. How many of us go beyond the green boxes, spikes and vague comparisons to dental brands today?

Finally, we forgot how unimportant we actually are. I’m by no means anti-purpose nor against leading the way towards a more positive and inclusive society, but I am against us falling up our own arses. Pepsi cans in armed riots, razors telling men how to be better, various brands telling me to ‘do more togetherness’? I’m in it to sell stuff in an entertaining way.

Give me a laugh, and you give advertising a role.

More funnies please.

Mark Elwood, executive creative director, Leo Burnett

The role of humour in advertising is being given a lot airtime due to the current mood of the nation. The cost-of-living crisis is making our audiences crave for nostalgia and a little something to lighten their day. Let’s remember, as creatives one of the most powerful things we can do is to entertain, so humour is a wonderful and versatile weapon in our arsenal. It’s hard to be funny, it’s hard to write funny, something you think is funny others may not find funny. Clients also find it hard to buy funny: is it exactly the right type of humour for the brand? Is it too slapstick? Too risqué? Are we a funny brand? Do we even have a sense of humour? I’ve had to write charts and explanations unpacking what type of humour is right for a client’s brand. The problem is humour can’t really be defined in that way. Truly populist humour that everyone ‘gets’ is an art form, but I strongly believe you also need a bit of luck. That luck being that your idea hits the collective mood of the nation at the right time, a shared moment of connection through laughter.

We’re in the fortunate position at Leo Burnett of having clients that are already established for making humorous work like Škoda and McDonald’s. Our long running ‘Like Getting Your Money’s Worth?’ platform for McDonald’s Saver has served up some cracking ads year after year. Perhaps less obviously, our last campaign for McDonald’s ‘Keep Up With The Times’ used humour to get across some serious messages about sustainable sourcing. It’s a good reminder of the versatility of humour and its power make tougher topics more likely to land well.

Andy Jex, chief creative officer, TBWA\London

Humour never went away. The whole time the ad industry decided to disown its strongest weapon, the world was still laughing and being funny. Just not with us.

During that time those who were great at writing funny were forced to adapt to a different type of work or worse still lost their jobs. Like lone comedic wolves, the clever and lucky ones have always kept chugging along. In-between there is of course a lost generation who haven’t grown up with funny work, who haven’t been mentored on how to write and craft funny. That’s a real talent gap.

Sometime ago an overwhelming number of those in leadership roles in advertising and marketing (who all sit on award juries) decided humour was no longer of value, no longer what they or their customers wanted. Or worse still, deemed humour too risky, too divisive or too subjective.

I’m not saying that decision was a conscious one, but I would say it was an overwhelmingly negligent one. Negligent, because they disowned number one: the consumers. Who now seem to be more put off and more distanced from advertising than ever before.

For me humour has always been the number one way to engage and entertain. It’s what made me want to do this job and the reason I still adore it. Normal people don’t care what we do. Never have done. Never will. Our jobs are to make brands stand out to people who don’t give a fuck about us. Funny, is the way to give people what they never knew they wanted. Funny is the way to get people to look up, to remember, to replay, repost and recite. No other work does this more powerfully than funny work. Perhaps agencies are realising this and reengaging real people again. Reengaging their audiences. Doing their jobs. The industry has been talking to itself and its juries for way too long.

Ayesha Walawalkar, chief strategy officer, MullenLowe Group

The best comedy sketches are the ones we can watch over and over, anticipating the pratfall and loving the narrative all the more because we know the gag is coming. Likewise, great jokes are the ones where we anticipate the payoff and prepare ourselves to be entertained. We share those jokes to build connection and we feel rewarded when our friends get the gag, and we can bask in their enjoyment.

Really funny advertising is so effective because it works in the same way. Not only does it have the hook of a powerful emotion (joy), but we love to share it, to talk about it, and to watch it again and again. Humour is an incredibly powerful creative amplifier.

British audiences have continued to respond well to humorous ads throughout the turbulence of the last seven years, but in contrast award shows have tended to favour ideas that shock or provoke, sadden or occasionally uplift us. For aspiring award-winners the message must have been clear: work that makes you laugh won’t make you win.

I’m delighted the pendulum has finally begun to swing back again and that humour is back in fashion. Tough economic times call for effective advertising – and consistently funny campaigns are amongst the most effective of all (ask Snickers).

The funniest ads of all time - as chosen by our contributors

  • David Masterman, deputy executive creative director, VCCP

    "The Skittles Touch film still makes me laugh, no matter how many times I watch it… and I’ve watched it a lot. I love the melancholy. The writing, the casting, the timing, are perfect. Humour needs tension to happen. Bold client. Big respect."

  • Simon Gregory, joint chief strategy officer, BBH

    "It’s a simple pleasure but John Smith’s ‘Claire at Work’ as part of their Curry House series with Peter Kay gets me every time. It shouldn’t do, but the performances, the awkwardness and the relatability come together for a proper laugh. Who says real life is boring?"

  • Mark Elwood, executive creative director, Leo Burnett

    "Geico Hump Day. Absolute Banger… It’s such a great concept and idea, happier than a camel on hump day, so funny. The voice of the camel itself is perfectly cast. That in my head, is now how all camels should sound. The rest of the cast are also on point and then a tiny band at the end. Brilliance in 30 seconds."

  • Andy Jex, chief creative officer, TBWA\London

    Starburst ‘berries and cream’ (the funniest version) would go down as a big fave of mine. It has the seductive mix of the utterly bizarre and the left field that’s perfectly balanced with just the right amount of logic. It never feels weird for the sake of it. It’s a fine line. And this is perfection - the casting, the performance, the dialogue, the action, the all-important timing and of course - the high kick. The fact that it came back to such a furore on TikTok 15 years later and found a new audience says everything about its power and everything about the void in humour at the time.

  • Ayesha Walawalkar, chief strategy officer, MullenLowe Group

    The funniest work I have seen recently is the superb Canal+ ‘Papa’ Gold Lion winning film. At 2 and a half minutes it’s long, but the visual storytelling rivets your attention pulling you onwards until you arrive at the brilliantly funny plot twist. I’ve watched it several times and picked up more subtle, funny, wonderful little touches each time.


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