Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Your ads don’t make me laugh. Why not?

By Simon Akers, founder of Archmon and a regular NDA columnist

We’re back! The world is opening up again, the majority are vaccinated and hopefully we are coming out of this. 

But I must ask – can somebody tell the ad industry this please?

We need humour back in advertising. Surely we have had our fill of melancholic piano backgrounds and zoom-ins of people bowing their heads after a long shift and staring longingly out of the window, waiting for things to return to normal. We have also had a litany of purpose-driven advertising to align brands with the right values, but oftentimes in the process removing any kind of joy, and with it salience.

Last week, I was back in London for the first time in months. And I have to say every digital screen, ad served, OOH poster and even targeted ad on phone just got on my nerves. Why?

Well not at first – it started great. TfL was telling everyone to ‘Be Kind ‘and even be patient as not all disabilities are visible. OK Great; I allow for PSAs relating to tolerance and inclusivity as their whole MO is to connect London, logistically if nothing else. Having worked with them I can say how important they are as a barometer of the city and they are doing this.


A cleaning brand – advertising how they will get you back on track on the tube. 

A leading online marketplace telling you to get that Back to Normal outfit ready.

A favourite southern American bourbon even sacrificing their glorious longer-form storytelling copy to tell us how good it is to say ‘Cheers’ again.

It’s so depressing, overly safe and predictable. Brands/blands are doing it at a canter.

Where is the fun?

I asked some friends/clients and suppliers in a quick poll their thoughts on advertising ,where it is and the over signal of convenient virtue, the open goal of pandemic referencing and general purpose-driven communication. These are not particularly marketing-savvy either. They’re everyday folk I have known for years. They’re part of the 98% who are not in the adland bubble, so they are the majority and really matter. A couple to pull out in particular:

‘I’m so bored of covid in ads, just don’t pretend you care’

‘What is with all the caring for the world stuff? It’s loo roll FFS’

Time to rectify

I came across this great visual derived from Cannes Lions data in BMB Agency’s recent How to be Funny report (read it for the best how-to guide I have seen on brand humour personas):

Seven times as many winners had humour in their campaigns as they do now. I always wonder why? And just look at that purpose trend for the last four years in relation to humour, a total inverse. It makes me sad!. There are stats to back up the effectiveness of humour too.

Source: Are you having a laugh? Richard Shotton

It’s an obvious formula that is almost always overlooked: Humour is memorable. Memorable ads are effective, increase brand recall and sales. Love or hate the GoCompare man or the Wassup Bud ads, they are ingrained indefinitely. Therefore, it is smart to think about humour as a way to drive effectiveness and performance.

We are past the need for optimism – we just need normality through levity

There seems to be this groupthink and mutual industry FOMO of not saying the right thing. It is almost like the brief of every marketer has been to their creative shops. ‘Right, we need to show our brand how we are back and how we are there for them and to be optimistic.’ Like it is going to be any different from every other ad in the last year.

In my post this time last year – a time when we had already had a 2 month fix of COVID-era comms, I shared a sentiment that was slightly trite but I stand by it: “Just don’t try to change the world unless you actually are. I have charities for that. Stay in your P&L lane.”

There are some great examples of those who have shone regardless of the circumstances. The Economist doing their word jumble to ironically talk about the high brow audience (‘Only Economist readers get it’). But of course, we all do, and that’s the power. Elton John sending himself up in the Snickers campaign. This is all good stuff.

It is not just the preserve of making products fun, humour is a great way to tackle serious issues if delivered properly. L’eau de Chris for CALM – where they bottled the tears into aftershave style – was spot on and proof that you can confront tricky conversations with the correct amount of humour. They join the ranks of memorability, from comparison site opera singers to daft phrases over a beverage (incidentally, Bud were able to resurrect this last year given its fame, albeit in a slightly over-‘purposey’ way.

The challenge to overcome

My biggest worry is that the internal stresses within agencies are now permeating the external output. Diluted play-safe comms that are having to tick so many purpose boxes, and in the process the house of cards crumbles and the fundamental tenet of what it is meant to be selling is lost. Also, the brands are built from all touchpoints, delivery, quality service, not just a nice bit of copy. Not your job to forcefully communicate values if they do nothing for the organisation.

There is no easy answer is to get consistently more laughable moments, but perhaps it is time for just one bigger brand to be brave and create that laughter. The nature of the bandwagon beast will then help snowball the humour in the right direction. Shed the purpose skin for a while, and ask yourself three questions of your work: Does it raise a smile? Will people remember it? Will people remember what it sells? That feels like a sensible starting point. Hopefully, there will be more of that style of work celebrated in Cannes next year – and not brand films with ‘Here For You’ end-cards interrupting my YouTube videos.

Have a read of the BMB report. It captures this stuff really well, and Shotton’s article too (which has a great visual of how comedy films were produced to lift people in critical times in the early 20th century such as The Great Depression and WW1 and 2). 

But have a think, what do people actually want?

You can give them what they want. 

To smile that is.