This post was written by Michael Pirone.
Every year, I get hundreds of marketing managers and founders asking me to make a funny ad to advertise their products.
It didn't hit me until recently why that actually was.
I was reading Ogilvy on Advertising (David Ogilvy's advertising rule book), and there's a section on the ten more effective types of TV ads.
At the top of the list, in first place: Humor.
Hmm... coincidence? Maybe.
So I do a small thought experiment. What are the ten most memorable ads I've seen in my career?
- Apple: The Underdogs
- Match: Match Made in Hell
- Mint Mobile: Chunky Style Milk
- Umbro: Morning Pumping
- Kia: Challenge the Luxury You Know
- Volvo: The Epic Split
- Nike SB: It was a good day
- Apple: Bounce
- Ikea: Show off your savvy
- Google: Home Alone
Seven out of ten were humorous. Sure, the words of those marketing managers, dear Mr. Ogilvy, and my personal taste in ads could be a little leading. So I did some research on why ads with humor are so sought after.
What I found was incredible.
There is hard science that supports why funny ads seem to keep working.
'Match Made in Hell'Credit: Match
Humor Makes Viewers Feel Good and Remember Better
When you laugh, there's actually a complicated physical process that involves many muscles and the release of endorphins in your brain. These work together to make you feel good.
Laughing also lowers stress hormones, which give you an overall sense of well-being (according to Dr. Lee Berk from Loma Linda University).
That part was cool, but here's how it begins to really connect with advertising: humor actually improves memory and recall. A study published in the journal Advances in Physiology Education discovered that students exposed to humor during lectures retained more information than those who were not.
This is because humor activates the brain's reward system, making the process of learning more enjoyable and memorable.
When I read this, I thought back to a time in 2021 where we produced a two-minute and thirty-second ad for DTC-darling, Koala (should out to Michael Beveridge and Evan Pirone).
The ad was beyond hilarious. We had super-talented comedians play the main roles, and the creativity was just excellent. But the length of the ad made me nervous. It was also scheduled to run on a skippable YouTube preroll, which is where many ads either live or die by the sword.
The average watch time in the first two weeks was one-minute and three seconds, which is, quite frankly, fucking great.
Turns out, there was another reason why.
Dunkin’ ‘Drive Thru’ starring Ben AffleckCredit: Dunkin' Donuts
We'll Wait for the Punchline, and We'll Also Share It
The brain does three things when it experiences humor.
First, it notices that something in the joke or situation is strange or unexpected.
Second, it tries to make sense of that strangeness. This is when you feel like you've "figured out" the joke.
Finally, your brain reacts with laughter or amusement.
There's actually a fourth thing that can also happen: sharing.
If a funny ad makes you feel good, you're more likely to want to share the happy feeling with someone else or experience that feeling again for yourself.
Neuroscientist Scott Weems, explains in his book Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why that humor engages multiple regions of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and (wait for it) social behavior.
I also read a study from the Wharton School of Business. It found that people are +30 percent more likely to share content that makes them feel something, like humor, compared to content that doesn't have an emotional element.
Maybe there's a reason that nearly every ad is produced by Maximum Effort (Ryan Reynold's ad agency). They are either a) probably shared with you by someone else, and b) are funny.
'ChatGPT Writes a Mint Mobile Ad'Credit: Ryan Reynolds via YouTube
Funny Ads Unlock "The Humanizing Effect"
The emotional connection that a humorous ad can create goes even deeper than I would have ever thought.
With humor, you make your brand more relatable and likable. All that "feel good energy" leads to, you guessed it, sales.
This was perhaps the most fascinating area of my research, and it comes together with three theories:
Social Identity Theory
Social identity theory suggests that individuals tend to group themselves and others into different social categories, such as age, gender, and job. These categories help people understand who they are and assess their social surroundings.
When brands use humor, they tap into shared experiences and cultural references that their target audience can relate to. This shared understanding creates a sense of belonging and group identity, making the brand feel more relatable and human. If you can pull this off, it leads to positive attitudes toward the brand and increased purchase intentions (Hetsroni and Reizer, 2014).
Emotional Contagion Theory
People unconsciously copy and match their emotions with others, which causes emotional similarity. When a brand uses humor in its marketing, it creates positive feelings in the audience, like happiness and entertainment.
These emotions then pass on to the brand, making an emotional connection between the brand and the buyer.
Humorous advertisements can produce positive feelings that improve the buyer's opinion of the brand and the ad. This emotional transfer makes the brand more human, as buyers start to associate it with the positive emotions they felt when they enjoyed the funny content.
Self-Disclosure and Vulnerability
Humor often involves being open and honest, which can be risky for brands because it may lead to criticism. By using humor, brands can show that they are genuine and willing to take risks, qualities that are usually associated with people rather than companies.
Moon J. Lee, PhD and Fannin Chen, MA found that humor helps build trust by showing a willingness to be emotionally open and vulnerable. When brands use humor, they can appear more authentic and approachable to consumers.
'Tell Me More'Credit: T-MobileIf I think of a brand that executed on the above, I immediately think of Manscaped.
Manscaped has managed to address a somewhat sensitive topic–men's grooming in intimate areas–without making it awkward or embarrassing for the audience.
That was despite having very little product differentiation. I mean, it's just a shaver, right?
But by creating relatable and light-hearted content, developing memorable characters and catchphrases, and tackling taboos with humor, Manscaped has earned the right to exist.
The Hard Bit
So we've learned that funny ads (according to science) do the following:
- Make us feel good
- Are easier to remember
- Make us wait to see the joke unfold
- Are more likely to be shared
- Make your brand more relatable and likable
Seems like a combination that can't lose. Though there's just one more thing you should probably know.
Producing a funny ad is hard. Not impossible by any means, just hard.
The good news is that, in my experience (and my video production company has produced hundreds of these over seven years), you can often tell if that ad is going to be funny as early as the first or second draft script.
In simpler terms, this means that you don't necessarily have to spend thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars and live with the fear of not knowing whether the ad will be funny.
Yes, the performance of the talent needs to suit the audience.
Yes, timing is everything.
And yes, pretty much everything else needs to go right on production day.
But try at least one funny campaign per quarter and you'll get damn good at knowing what works. The science is on your side. If it makes you laugh, there's a high chance it will make your audience laugh, too.
This post was written by Michael Pirone.
Michael Pirone is the co-founder and creative director at Vidico, a video production agency that produces high-performing video content for startups and brands companies like Square, Spotify, and Uber.