Shut Up and Be Funny!

Let’s start things off with a few jokes.


How bout a web marketing joke?

There hasn’t been a single human in history that doesn’t like to laugh. At least, I sincerely hope there hasn’t been…that would be pretty sad. Finding something humorous is inherently joyful, so it makes sense that so many brands use humor in their marketing activities. If the viewer associates that brand with the joy they’re experiencing as they chuckle, the advertiser has done a fine job.

A couple of brands that a vast majority actually like!

You know how that same new funny cat video seems to pop up almost simultaneously on your social networks? It’s the digital version of the phrase ‘laughter is contagious’ in action.

Of course, this is why the humor angle is used so often in online marketing campaigns. We want people to share like crazy. Humor marketing campaigns are tailor-made for sharing. It’s also often the easiest to brainstorm. When members of Distilled get together to generate ideas for clients, a roomful of laughing consultants means we’re probably churning out some good stuff.


The upsetting thing is that so often some of the funniest, most creative ideas get turned down. The reasons for nixing some of these ideas vary, and this post is an attempt to explore some of the things holding back the lulz.

Client Says: It’s just not “us”

We hear this from clients a lot and it’s hard to really change anyone’s mind if it’s the reason. In many cases, it’s perfectly legitimate. Companies spend years and tons of money on branding exercises defining their “voice”. They (should) have a really strong grasp on their demographic, and if you’re suggesting something that this demo won’t understand, would be offended by, or would otherwise alienate their customer base, then it’s just a bad idea.

For this reason it’s very important for the web marketing consultant to have a strong understanding of the client’s voice and branding. It’s fine in a brainstorm meeting to throw out ideas that would never fly, but if the consultant spends time crafting a pitch for a client that stands no chance…well, that’s bad consulting. It’s billable hours wasted that could’ve been avoided with a few minutes of conversation in the kick-off call.

But perhaps the consultant could be doing a better job extolling the benefits of this campaign. There’s no question that a successfully executed humorous campaign can bring about:

  • A positive association
  • A personality (Gasp!!)
  • Approachability

Client Says: We’re Not Funny

Along the same lines, clients in unexciting industries or otherwise clients with established (boring) campaigns sometimes feel like humor is a direction they’re just not capable of pulling off. Flimshaw! I scoff at thee.

Long before Old Spice teamed up with Wieden + Kennedy to create “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”, they were still doing playing the “sex sells” angle. Video below is probably NSFW in some offices. There’s really no need to watch it. It’s a sexy woman dancing suggestively. It sucks.

Think Old Spice are glad they chose to take a risk and be funny? Another example: Does anyone remember what Dos Equis were doing before “The Most Interesting Man”?

I’ve stuck strictly to massive campaigns for large brands in this post mainly for inspirational purposes, but plenty of smaller web-based businesses have made waves with their brand of funny:

Client Says:It Might Offend Someone

This is a really tough one to overcome, but it’s doable. First, there is probably a percentage of people that could be offended by almost every successful humorous marketing campaign that has been launched. The consultants job here is to craft a campaign that minimizes that percentage. Even still, the cost of offending 1% of people that probably weren’t going to ever be a customer is well worth the exposure to a whole new subset of potential customers.

Within the creation phase, some clients will push to remove anything that could be even slightly construed as risqué. Consultants should walk a fine line here - will the item(s) in question actually offend? In some cases it’s worth pushing back - no one ever had their ideas shared because they were supremely inoffensive.

Internet backlash is scary, so reticence to use humor is understandable. The consultants job is to make sure that the worst case scenario is that the campaign falls flat.

Asking Why Not

When a pitch is rejected, sometimes “Why Not?” is a follow-up question with warrant. Just to be clear, in cases when your pitch is awful, offensive, or really does potentially hurt your client’s brand, there should be no “Why Not?”. But the fear of unknown might be what’s driving the rejection, which can be overcome with proper education.


Humor is a really attractive angle to build campaigns around because of its universal appeal. But seeing a campaign through from start to finish can be challenging. With attention to detail, a good consultant can navigate past the roadblocks, and very often it’s worth the effort.

Get blog posts via email


  1. Anthony Pensabene

    Nice, Mike P -

    There was some cat who used his dog and appropriate dose of humor in his Mozcon presentation. It was amongst the best (IMO). I looked around the entire room; people were captivated. Why? Yes, the information was good; but, it was improved with humor. I was entertained and educated. Yahtzee!

    This strikes an immediate chord with me; admittedly, I've been told (twice-three including my mom) in recent weeks my writing style/tone was not a good fit at times for 'corporate' or 'professional' blogs. Am I professional (maybe at being unprofessional?) I think so. Do I like it when people give me more, trying to entertain as well as deliver insight? Yes. Do I take a stab at the same? Sure do.

    I can't say how many times in my professional life (I used to work with those who "needed help"-I would get dressed in scrubs and a doctor's mask to dispense medication. Was it "professional"? Meh. Did it make the people I looked after laugh? Yep.) I've been questioned about my tendency to insert humor in professional instances. However, I'm glad there is another mind, who takes being silly seriously.

    reply >
  2. Humour is SO easy to get wrong. Think of all the terribly unfunny radio adverts and commercials out there that were trying to make an honest run at humor. Failed humor stings.

    That said, I couldn't agree with you more. Part of how I've built my personal "brand" is around nothing other than being funny. Humour crosses all kinds of boundary lines, demographics, whatever.

    The risk, though, is being funny without making a sale. You can be wildly hilarious, but at the end of the day you're still trying to get people to convert on some action. There's a danger in being too focused on entertaining and losing the business side of things altogether.

    reply >
  3. The occasional hit with humour is often seen and memorable as a result, the hard part is maintaining consistency on a continual basis, and knowing when to stop before going just that bit too far.

    reply >
  4. I agree with Joel K, comedy is hard to get right because it is subjective. Comedy ideas are easy to generate and yes they can remove a potential customer from the sale. But I'm sure comedy can be used to entertain (and make a site memorable) and compliment the sale.

    Comedy is the enemy of blandness, you stand out and you try to subvert and if you laugh with a brand you're half way in. I saw a Burger King truck on the motorway today. On the back was the legend 'No Whoppers left in this truck overnight.' It made me smile (hey I've had a good day) and moved me a mite closer to buying a bundle of beef and cheese, yum...


    reply >
  5. Good post Mike.

    Groupon is an interesting example here: they tried to document how to be funny, without being (a) not funny, or (b) offensive.

    reply >

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>