I Don't Get It: When Humor Works And When It Doesn't


Can we talk frankly for a minute about humor? 

We know that coming from us, this subject is going to raise few questions in your mind. 

The first is "Why are you talking about being funny? A soundstage company has no business commenting on creative." 

The second is "Why are you wearing a plastic arrow-through-the-head? That gag hasn't been funny since--well, it's never been funny." 

Tough questions. 

But we felt like this would be an issue worth discussing, especially since humor is the tactic you're most likely to use to overcome the video content bubble. 

You're familiar with "the bubble," right? 


Today, the world of communication--marketing, education, news, and entertainment--is in something of a crisis. There's way more content than eyeballs to take it in. 

You've probably read about how the amount of available information in the world (books, webpages, podcasts, opera librettos, videos, etc.) up until 2009 was DOUBLED by 2012. And most likely has already doubled again. 

Check out this stat from one extremely small section of that content, scripted TV shows. The New York Times estimated that by the end of 2015 the number of original scripted shows on broadcast, cable, and major streaming services totaled 409. That's double the number from just 6 years ago. 

Now add in all the sports, news, home shopping, reality programming, etc. filling hundreds of channels 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and you get an idea of the tidal wave of video content that's just on TV. (We're not even going to mention YouTube where an hour of programming is uploaded every second. Oops, just did.) 

The point is, the work you're doing for your clients--whether it's TV spots, infomercials, or online videos--is in danger of getting lost. Unless you find a way to grab and hold your audience's attention. 

In marketing-speak that's a technique known as "engagement." 

So how do you get people to watch your stuff? We don't know. So we asked an expert. 


Steve Diamond is Executive Creative Director of R2C Group, headquartered in Portland, OR. They are a data driven creative and media agency with more than $425 million in billings with clients that include Peloton, 23andMe, Humana Healthcare, Bissell and Redfin. Drawing on performance data from nearly $8 Billion in media history, they know what works. 

Diamond's perspective on humor is interesting because before he came to Portland he worked in New York at some of the world's biggest and most prominent agencies--both on the branding side and on direct response. 

He says that the best way to engage is to elicit strong emotions. "You have to make people feel something." If your message is simply in the form of a rational argument, it isn't as effective. "David Ogilvy often said, 'You can't bore someone into buying your product.'" 

For some products, making your audience cry works really well. For instance, if you are raising money for the Red Cross or the Humane Society. But for many consumer products, humor is the tool of choice. Not only does it keep the audience paying attention to your pitch and associate your product with a good feeling, but it gets them on your side. You're laughing together. 

"However," Diamond says, "there's a risk in being too funny. Humor can draw attention and make your advertising memorable, but if it's too funny, it can hurt you when you are trying to get people to respond. If what is happening in the spot is too entertaining, you can engage the audience so much that they don't take time to go online or make a phone call." 

"In those cases, it's a threshold that you need to go up to, but not cross. That takes discipline and skill. Otherwise, the funnier the better." 


So your client has decided that their spot for honey roasted dog treats should be funny. (They hated your tear-jerker idea where the faithful little dog lies on his master's grave in the pouring rain.) 

How do you make sure it gets a laugh? 

We thought we should ask veteran director Kevin Costello. Having begun his career in the very serious world of Smithsonian documentaries and network news promos, he's one of our favorite directors for national retail spots that have a wry take on whatever they're selling. 

Costello says that in the age of channel surfing, every second you can hold people's attention is an accomplishment. 

"It's the sugar coating on the pill," he says. 

However, he points out that that comedy for general audiences is notoriously tricky for two reasons. 

First, the most potent humor is very specific. Making something funny for everybody naturally dilutes that power. 

Second, the funniest stuff is a little dangerous. 

Just because a line is so hilarious that it makes latte foam come out of your nose doesn't mean it should be associated with a client. Nobody wants to pay for a video that does serious PR damage. 

So if you decide to use humor, make sure your idea has been reviewed by somebody who can tell you if large portions of your public will find it offensive. 

But moving past that problem, here are three rules Costello has learned about making something that's actually funny. 

1. It should ring true. People laugh when you show them something about real life in a new light. 

2. It should be surprising. When you see the joke coming from a mile off, it's like trying to tickle yourself. 

3. Timing is everything. Give yourself options to experiment with finding the perfect rhythm in edit. 

When humor works AND it actually leverages the joke to help people remember the brand name, product, and selling proposition, there's nothing better. The worst is when the viewers chuckle and ten seconds later can't remember any of the above. 


Creating pieces that stand out in today's over-saturated media universe isn't easy. 

Unless your video contains earth-shattering news, you're going to need to find another way to be memorable. 

Humor fits the bill. 

Thinking back on high school, nobody remembers the kid who got the third best GPA. But everybody remembers the class clown. 

The guy wearing the plastic arrow-through-the-head.