Does Humor Work in Selling?

June 6th, 2009 by Bob Bly

Should we use humor in selling?

The reason not to is fairly compelling:

Of all writing, humor is the most subjective.

Therefore, what you think is funny may leave your reader cold.

To prove that humor is subjective, I submit for your approval my 10 favorite comedy films of all time:

1?Dirty Work.
2?Rat Race.
3?Billy Madison.
4?Men in Black.
5?Scary Movie 3.
6?40 Year Old Virgin.
7?Wedding Crashers.
8?Austin Powers.
9?The Naked Gun.
10?Anchor Man.

Now I ask you: How many of these are also on your list? Not many, I bet.

Which of your favorite comedies did I leave off the list?

How many do you actually think are NOT funny? Probably one or two — proving my thesis that humor is indeed subjective.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, June 6th, 2009 at 8:02 am and is filed under Direct Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

88 responses about “Does Humor Work in Selling?”

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  3. Ken Harrison said:

    Bob,

    Your point is well-taken about humor being subjective. Are you also saying that there are universal truths in marketing that are NOT subjective? Isn’t everything we read (or write) subjective in that each individual will read it through his or her own reading glasses? Each seeing and understanding from his or her individual point of view?

    I understand that some marketing pieces pull better than others and are more effective than others. This is undeniable. But I also believe that whether or not they pull is based on a myriad of things that you discuss here on your blog and also in your articles and books (BIG fan BTW). Not the least of which is subjectivity. For example, one person may see a DM piece as the answer to all of his problems and another may see the same piece as another piece of junk mail. Aren’t all marketing pieces subjective? I think humor is just another part that is subjective. I don’t think that humor by itself is the only piece of the subjective pie.

    Ken

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  5. Philip McLean said:

    I’ve seen humor in ads that, to the best of my knowledge, worked: the Alka-Seltzer commercials from the late ’60s (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”) to the 2006 Super Bowl FexEx ad, with a caveman fired because he did not use FedEx. I’ll agree, there’s plenty of ads where someone tried to be funny, and it didn’t work, but I’m not sure that it’s really worse than the serious ads that don’t work, either.

  6. Bob Bly said:

    Ken, Philip: While there is a degree of subjectivity in many things, humor has the greatest potential for failing to produce the desired response. Among all the modes of communication, humor is either the most subjective or at least pretty dartn close to it.

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  8. I.A said:

    Spot on as always Bob… I think humour also depends on what is culturally acceptable. Probably the only not funny is MIB…. The rest is pretty funny in my opinion…. When I write copy I try to leave “being funny” completely off the table.. (how come i can’t hit the return key?)———– Just bought Copywriter’s Handbook from my local Borders AND almost done with Secrets of A Freelance Writer, it’s a very good read, one that I wished I had before I started writing…. ————– Peacefully, I.A.

  9. Ash said:

    Bob, you make a very good point with a good analogy. After reading your headline but before I read what you wrote, I started thinking about movies. Good analogy. I will have to agree with your overall concepts. However, I once read somewhere (probably in one of his books) that David Ogilvy denounced using humor in advertising but the later recanted and said that humor could be a good a good advertising device. I am leaning toward your point of view, but I thought I would bring this up for discussion.

    I also agree with Ken. Those are fairly memorable commercials.

    But overall humor is totally subjective and that is why comedies generally get low ratings and reviews. There is no agreement on it. There are a lot more bad comedies than there are bad action movies.

  10. S.P. Gass said:

    I have no data to support this, but I would suspect funny tv commercials are among the most memorable and effective.

    Comedy fans may also be interested in Funny Farm, Stripes, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

  11. Ken said:

    I suppose the big question would be, did all those funny ads go on to increase the sales of the products and services they were advertising…or did they just make people laugh?
    There are lots of funny commercials and ads around today, but after you have your chuckle do you actually go out and buy them?
    I know I don’t.

  12. Bob Bly said:

    In the NYC metro area, a few years ago we were treated to some very funny commercials featuring a crazy dancing old man for an amusement park — Six Flags, as I recall. I also remember that during the campaign, which cost over six million bucks, the increase in ticket sales was zero.

  13. Ken said:

    I remember those commercials…and I remember that campaign being used as an example of very expensive advertising producing no results.
    At the end of the day, that’s what you and all the others teach, right? Funny or not, if it doesn’t increase sales it isn’t any good.

  14. Marjorie Steele said:

    Cracked.com has an excellent article articulating why that Six Flags campaign might have failed (http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-six-flags-mascot-like-eating-chocolate-skittles-with-your-eyes). The interesting part about Bob’s movie list is that each of those movies are targeted to a pretty specific demographic – just like marketing and sales campaigns are. I think humor in general is tricky, and in order for humorous sales campaigns to be effective, they must be carefully tuned to a particular audience.

    I know that my generation (20-somethings) values comedy and satire pretty highly, and I think marketing campaigns driven by well-written, well targeted humor can be very successful.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Bob!

  15. Jodi Kaplan said:

    There was an Arby’s campaign several years ago featuring a talking oven mitt with Tom Arnold’s voice. They spent $85 million on the campaign. Wonder how many (if any) sandwiches that sold?

    Oh, and the dancing guy from Six Flags is back.

  16. Lou Wasser said:

    It’s a fine line. Humor can detract from the important message in the ad if it’s too blatant or over the top. On the other hand, it can help support a message. Years ago, a very sexy gal touting Noxema Shaving Cream urged TV watchers (men, obviously) to “take it off,” “take it all off.” while the then-popular music entitled “The Stripper” blared in the background.

    The pun equating stripping with shaving was an easy one to grasp, and the ad campaign was immensely successful.

  17. S.P. Gass said:

    I haven’t bought glasses from Four Eyes but really enjoyed a couple of their commercials. I would think the ads were successful tying in a message (don’t overpay for glasses) with humor.

  18. Bob Bly said:

    The media in which humor works best: TV, radio, online video.

    Where it works worst: direct mail, telemarketing.

  19. S.P. Gass said:

    Bob, I agree. In the DC area, Jerry’s Subs has some good radio ads with political impersonators promoting their $5 steak ‘n’ cheese subs.

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  22. Steve Rainwater said:

    Hi Bob,

    To speak to your thesis that humor is subjective using your movie list – I laughed so hard during Wedding Crashers I was fatigued at the end of the movie (I was worn out from laughing so much while trying to be respectful to others with my wife constantly elbowing me to laugh more quietly and controlled so as not to be disruptive in the theater – she was laughing too, just not like me) while for me Men in Black was entertaining but hardly provoked a laugh. Scary Movie to me even seemed boring although one of my sons says it is one of his all time most funny.

    slr

  23. Steve Rainwater said:

    Hi Bob,

    I forgot to add in the previous entry two comedy movies that are high on my list but did not make yours are Dodgeball and True Lies. I would be interested to know if either of those were appealing to you.

    slr

  24. Bob Bly said:

    Steve: I like Scary Movie 3, not Scary Movie. Dodgeball was OK, but not top 10 for me. True Lies was interesting and entertaining, but not really funny.

    I also left off my list what is really my favorite comedy film of all time: Groundhog Day.

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