How to be funny online


iMedia Connection

Humorous campaigns can be the biggest viral hits — or virulent failures. Learn the rules for injecting humor without causing a fatal overdose for your brand.

Why comedy is the new currency
If you can make people smile….you have just disarmed them. If you can make people laugh out loud, you have just made them feel like they’re in on the joke, and there’s a good chance you left them feeling better than they did before you got to them. But most importantly, by using comedy you have created a positive association between the users and whatever brand, product or concept you are representing. Make ’em laugh and you can make them do anything.

Rule #1: Be as funny as you need to be
In our increasingly fragmenting 2.0 online world of all-you-can-eat distraction, unlimited customization and a seemingly endless parade of “apps,” the comedic marketing campaign that really clicks is the Holy Grail to which we all aspire. Something memorable that makes people laugh and want to share it with their friends is about as good as it gets. And online, even though we have far more latitude, the same basic real world rules of comedy apply: Make ’em laugh and you can make them do anything. But if it’s not funny, you’re dead.

So, how funny do you really need to be in order to be heard, be seen and be taken seriously…or at the very least, have an impact for your brand?

The answer is as simple as it is deceptive: as funny as you need to be…and then some.

Rule #2: Don’t be a fool
Once upon a time, brands weren’t always willing to take a pie in the face in the name of comedy. Serious institutions like banking, insurance and law were treated with the same gravity as a life-threatening illness. To have fun with a “serious” brand was to somehow cheapen it, or at least weaken it in the eyes of the consumer. But the online world is much more forgiving, not to mention starved for distracting entertainment. Here, a new car can be a toy, an insurance premium can become impenetrable video game “armor” and even the once staid world of banking is now cheerfully irreverent. Why? Because online, brands can take more chances and experiment like a curious college student who suddenly finds himself alone for the weekend with his girlfriend’s hot older sister, a fully stocked wet bar, dad’s credit card and Timothy Leary’s chemistry set. Those brands that have thrived have seen the paralyzing, stagnating effects of resisting change take its toll on their lesser evolved competitors, and they jump into the pool fully dressed and ready to make fools of themselves. In this brave new world, the only real fools are those who remain dry.

Rule #3: Even serious topics can use humor
So, the only real guideline for an online comedy campaign is how far is too far? Can you have fun with anything?

Personal hygiene? Certainly. Axe leads the way. Household products? Yep. Brawny reinvented itself with its now legendary Brawny Academy. Food and beverage? Burger King is edgier than ever online and the efforts have given it a level of street cred that few brands in its category have ever enjoyed. Insurance? Absolutely. Remember, at one point, Geico even had its own sitcom based on its funny hit campaign (ok, so the execution of the sitcom wasn’t very funny, but Geico can’t be blamed for that).

How about if your brand is a funeral home? Can that be funny? Probably, if handled correctly. It could look something like this:

When Gramps passed on, we were faced with a choice we couldn’t make. So, much like a reality show, we decided to let YOU, the American people, decide.

  • To inter Gramps, press 1.
  • To cremate Gramps, press 2.
  • To make Gramps dance madly to “Dance Dance Revolution”, press 3.

Everyone would press 3 first. Everyone. Even Gramps, if he could, would want to see himself dance like a mad skeleton just one last time before the big sendoff.

Now I’m not suggesting that a funeral home actually do this… but it does familiarize the audience with the whole burial vs. creation dilemma in a light-hearted and somewhat engaging way. Because eventually, even the most diehard of gamers will tire of DDR’s repetitive commands and address the need to put Gramps to a peaceful rest and take care of his final wishes.

So how can you inject a little humor into your brand the right way, without falling flat or, worse, betraying your brand identity?

Funny is subjective. What is funny to a teenager is on a completely different astral plane than what is funny to a middle-aged professional, but both are equally valid. Arguably the teenager is the more desirable audience, and so the guidelines become crystallized, if not oversimplified:

  • People in pain are funny.
  • People who fail are funny.
  • Average guys who can’t score with the ladies are funny.
  • Impotence is also funny.
  • Extreme discomfort is hilariously funny.
  • Parody is funny, and “Star Wars” parody is even funnier.
  • The ’80s are funny.  The ’90s are just now starting to be funny.
  • The ’70s are kind of funny, but in that scary way that clowns are funny.
  • Drunk people are especially funny (especially in conjunction with any of the first five guidelines).

When funny falls flat
Nothing is less funny than something that tries to be hilarious and falls short of the mark. We have all seen and participated in things that didn’t go as planned. When a serious endeavor flops, one can try to pass it off as a joke (see “Battlefield Earth”) but when something intended to be funny falls short, it’s time to drink Eliot Spitzer under the table.

For example, I once worked on a campaign that was for a comedy film, and I was asked to write a series of one-liners that would be sight gags distributed around an environment. I wrote what I thought to be pretty funny stuff, but the execution — which was, incidentally, produced by another company — sucked the funny out of my material faster than, well, Dracula after swilling a case of Red Bull.

My company does a lot of entertainment-based features, so we have a hard, fast rule that we try to adhere to: “Make the joke over easy.” Besides being an unforgivably bad pun, it means, get to the punchline fast. Don’t make the audience think too hard or have to work too hard to get the joke.

Rule #4 – Jokes don’t kill people (people kill people). But fear kills ideas.
Recently, we created a comedy piece that became a true viral hit. In support of Fox’s “Meet the Spartans,” the feature, CarmenHasACrushOnYou, was extremely effective not only because it leveraged the incredible popularity of Carmen Electra, but because it was created as an original, stand-alone piece of entertainment that used “Spartans” as the background for what is essentially a flirtatious prank that the user could play on his or her friends. During the course of a mock interview, Carmen pulls her pants down to reveal the user’s name tattooed on her well-documented posterior, holds up a photo of the user and actually calls the user at the end of the interview (“Let’s make a date to see ‘Meet the Spartans’. You bring the popcorn… and I’ll bring the butter.”)

The very forward-thinking team at Fox took a chance, and it worked better than anticipated. Read that one more time: They said, “YES. Let’s take a chance.” And remember this — it was a spoof-type feature, in support of a satirical film…and trust us; it is a very delicate dance indeed to parody a parody.

There have been countless situations where I have gone too far out for a client, who fearfully reels me back in. But I have to go there as part of the process (and I enjoy the look of terror on their faces). Sometimes it’s a reflexive move not to want to rock the boat; sometimes it’s the knowledge that the ultimate decision maker will say “no.” But a lot of times, the hesitancy is purely due to fear… until there is a proven example in the marketplace, at which point it is a day late and a dollar short to pull off something innovatively funny. Fear is the absolute worst thing a brand can bring to the table.

Part of innovation is the ability to be fearless. Another part is to be adaptive.

Online campaigns can be always modified, retrofitted, reinvented. The best campaigns are those that evolve with the audience in ways previously thought impossible. The relationship between brand and audience is now a dialogue.

The time has never been better for experimentation. I say, fear not, brand dudes. We’re here to make you laugh. Now let’s make Gramps do the Macarena.


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