Attracting Customers with Humor

Mel Brooks, on defining humor said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” I guess that wouldn’t be funny to you and that’s the danger of using humor in business dealings. Most people say the key ingredient in all business communications is never mention sex, politics or religion and many of us have found that out the hard way. Using humor in business is more subtle… sort of like a subtle teamsters strike down at the docks. Everyone loves humor but so many people have a different idea of what’s funny. Done correctly, humor can endear you to clients and customers and drive your business to incredible levels. When I first graduated art school, I was hooked up with a friend of the family who owned a large ad agency. He, in turn, introduced me to the head creative director who gave me several tests the agency used to hire talent. One of them was to write and storyboard several commercials. One of them was a car commercial. Having an odd sense of humor, I decided to create a commercial with humor to sell cars, which was not done at the time, as the creative director was quick to point out before dismissing me as unacceptable for his agency. Years later, I saw him at an industry event and reminded him of what he said. Advertisers had discovered humor for the automotive industry, as well as other untouched areas. He wasn’t pleased at my smile and reminder of what he had so easily poo-pooed. Hmmm… that’s a funny saying. He wasn’t really wrong at the time and there was no reason the future would be any different. Traditionally, car commercials are sleek, sexy and fast. They show cars zooming around mountains and hairpin turns while family vans cruise the neighborhood and the doors open to expel a dozen children and a dog. It hasn’t changed much over decades of television. The first humorous car commercial was the Joe Isuzu (actor David Leisure), fictional spokesperson for the Isuzu automobile and truck company. Created by the ad agency Della Femina, Travisano & Partners in 1986, the commercials were so popular for their over-the-top humorous and blatant lying (“it has more seats than the Astrodome,” “the new Isuzu truck can carry a 2,000 pound cheeseburger” and the tag line following these obvious lies was, “you have my word on it” or the dare, “if I’m lying, may lightning strike my mother”… followed by “good luck, mom” appearing on the screen) the commercials ran regularly in the same format until 1990. The campaign was resurrected in 1999 and continued until 2001. The actor, now iconic with the character of the lying pitchman, reprised his role in the recent presidential election, campaigning for Mitt Romney… which meant he was really campaigning for Obama. When a fledgling company, FedEx came out with their humorous commercials (the paper blob, fast talking man, etc.), which were outrageous humor, people said it would never work for a delivery company. So, who was right? Examples abound, for companies like IKEA, soft drinks, food items and odd family owned shops and businesses. Still, using humor is a tricky move. The IKEA commercials spotlighted above were created for the European market, long held for its liberal views on approaches that would never fit the American market. Humor is not universal and when dealing with global clients, it’s important to remember cultural ideals and customs as to not offend the client.

They “Died Laughing!”

Humor, as some comedians have observed, is an assault on people.  Humor is described with terms such as, “that joke killed,” “I slew ’em” and “I murdered that audience.” The wrong bit of humor will kill a relationship as well. It’s important that people have a different sense of what’s funny and while some people seem to have no sense of humor, they do but it’s not apparent to others. So, how do you tell what some people find humorous? Tell a joke and the people who complain to human resources that you offended them didn’t find it funny. In an article, “The Case for Humor,” written by Kevin Daum and published by Inc. magazine, Mr. Daum defends humor as a way of reaching people in the following ways:

Humor establishes rapport – Almost all people love to laugh. Non-offensive jokes can easily establish likeability and trust. A joke related to a difficult situation can disarm a prospect or client when delivering “tough medicine.” Relationships are often built on experiences of shared humor. People do business with people they like, and if they smile and laugh every time you are near they associate you with happiness. Combined with knowledge, humor enhances expertise, demonstrating confidence and strength.Humor triggers memorability – Many strive to create “AHA! moments” in customer’s minds. This occurs when one is thinking one way and you turn their head to think another. Those are the very mechanics of a joke punch-line. In our example I suggest a Midwestern state and quickly turn it to a statement of finances. The unexpected wordplay registers in the brain as humor, which triggers endorphins that encode for memory. This is why a childhood joke exists in our repertoire decades after introduction.Humor creates alignment – A joke is based upon shared experience. Humor works well when there is communal understanding of the issues at hand. By identifying a common problem and creating a punch-line around it, insiders will adopt the punch-line as a trigger representing the issue. So when no one remembers to turn off the lights when leaving, a giant light switch painted on the wall makes people laugh and remember their responsibility without embarrassment.

Recently, the Campbell Soup Company launched a new line of bold-flavored soups in microwaveable packaging, trying to cultivate a whimsical, humorous personality for the line to attract “Millennials.” Campbell launched a Campbell’s Go Facebook page in October. It now has nearly 76,000 fans.

“The Campbell’s Go Facebook page gives a personality and voice to each of the six Campbell’s Go soup flavors that follows a sitcom-esque style and features humorous daily posts and shared content,” says Nelson Warley, senior brand manager of Campbell North America. “We’ll be sharing content on our Facebook page in collaboration with our digital partners, including BuzzFeed, Spotify and Angry Birds, [as well as] photos from events and organic conversations with our fans.” “We developed a digital marketing campaign aimed at igniting Millennials’ passion points – one being humor,” Warley says. “The campaign is aimed at breaking through and connecting with our audience in an authentic, genuine way that they will instantly understand and appreciate.”Examples of Campbell’s Go sponsored BuzzFeed posts include: “17 Animals Who Were Totally Prepared for Halloween,” “10 Famous Landmarks and Their Greatest Facsimiles,” and “10 DIY Tips for Camping Without Leaving Home.” “Campbell’s Go is also sponsoring BuzzFeed’s Nom Nom Feed. As the feed’s sponsor, posts on BuzzFeed tagged with Nom Nom appear with a tab that says “Presented by Campbell’s Go Soups.”Campbell is also promoting the personality of the soup on the packages themselves. They feature whimsical photos and humorous sayings that also appear within many elements of the marketing campaign.”

Knock, knock!

Humor makes for a more human relationship and, as Mr. Daum, writes, it established a rapport and people wanted to do business with someone they liked and who could back up the business relationship with superior service as well.If you’ve ever been employed by a large corporation, you’ve undoubtedly had to watch a harassment video covering the proper office etiquette. Anyone within ear reach of a joke may be offended and you are guilty of harassment. If you tell a joke at a meeting and 99 people laugh but one complains, you will be written up or dismissed for harassment. So, how does one judge the temperament of one’s audience? When in doubt, make fun of yourself! I’ve only been called into human resources once for making fun of myself in front of a group and when I refused to press charges of harassment on myself, the matter was dropped.

Funny, Ha-Ha! Funny, Strange?

Mark Levit, of Partners & Levit, writes in his article, “Humor in Advertising,” that most of the more memorable ads are those with humor.Many of the most memorable ad campaigns around tend to be funny. Advertisers use this strategy to attract customers to their product. Audiences like to be entertained, but not pitched. People will pay more attention to a humorous commercial than a factual or serious one, opening themselves up to be influenced. The key to funny advertising is assuring the humor is appropriate to both product and customer. The balance between funny and obnoxious can often be delicate; and a marketer must be certain the positive effects outweigh the negative before an advertisement can be introduced.

The best products to sell using humor tend to be those that consumers have to think the least about. Products that are relatively inexpensive, and often consumable, can be represented without providing a lot of facts, and that’s where there’s room for humor. Candy, food, alcohol, tobacco and toys/entertainment related products have proven to benefit the most from humor in their campaigns. One of the most important things to keep in mind is relevance to the product. An example of an extremely successful humorous campaign is the series of?”Yo Quiero Taco Bell” commercials. The star, a tiny talking Chihuahua who is passionate about his Taco Bell got people repeating the company’s name across the country. The repetition of the company name and the actual content of the commercial reinforce the message in a relevant manner.  Taco Bell saw a substantial rise in sales and their own mascot became a pop icon.

Of course, he echos the usual common… or not so common, unfortunately, sense that should accompany humor:

Humor in advertising tends to improve brand recognition, but does not improve product recall, message credibility, or buying intentions. In other words, consumers may be familiar with and have good feelings towards the product, but their purchasing decisions will probably not be affected. One of the major keys to a successful humorous campaign is variety, once a commercial starts to wear out there’s no saving it without some variation on the concept. Humorous campaigns are often expensive because they have to be constantly changed. Advertisers must remember that while making the customer laugh, they have to keep things interesting, because old jokes die along with their products.

“Old jokes.” Humor must be fresh and innovative. There’s nothing worse than repeating the same joke to the same audience and this goes for ads, messages and casual conversations.

Offend Only Yourself

A recent client wanted some opening paragraphs for car blogs that would entertain readers so they would continue reading articles on car maintenance, which tend to be somewhat dry and not funny at all. Here’s an example of a couple of those paragraphs:

When I was a kid, my uncle bought a great big, new sedan and he was so protective of it, my cousin and I weren’t even allowed to look at it. My cousin was a huge James Bond fan so he decided to use my uncle’s label maker to put labels on all the dashboard instruments like, “oil slick,” “machine guns” and “ejector seat.” Back then, those labels didn’t come off. My uncle was furious but he had the coolest spy car, driving to the military school he put my cousin in. Top secret… in this issue…

My grandfather had a unique way to fix his car. Usually it consisted of kicking the tires, pounding on the roof, cursing at the ghost of Henry Ford and walking back into the house mumbling until Matlock came on and he could yell at the TV. He had the same method fixing tanks during the war. Thank goodness he was on the enemy’s side!Just kidding! Fixing your car has come a long way since my grandfather’s days in the American Revolution, so here’s some tips to help you fix some problems and still catch the beginning of Matlock. In this issue…

The humor fell upon my family. No stereotypes, bashing any particular group and the only people hurt was certain family members, and trust me, they deserve it! It also calls into shared experience as it’s a safe bet that most people have odd family members. I was told by the client that these and other paragraphs I wrote were extremely popular.  A little humor warmed people up and kept them reading the blogs until they got to the car dealer’s call to action, which made him money. He didn’t even need to rely upon the usual fast talking of most cheating car dealers! Self-deprecating humor always works the best and can heal tense situations. A prime example I once read in an article was an incident where a client cancelled an important meeting at the last minute after the vendor had travelled far for the meeting. “I understand,” said the vendor, who was really fuming at the trouble he had gone through and the client’s dismissive excuse of having something more important to do. “Just give me a call when you’re ready to meet. I hope this opportunity works out well for you so I can make you place a bajillion dollar order this year.” The client laughed and agreed and while the next order wasn’t a bajillion dollars, it was the largest order he had ever placed. The vendor diffused a bad situation with humor and the client, who had to have some feeling he was going to upset the vendor by canceling at the last minute. I was once accused of coming up with a good tension breaking comment for an artist organization board on which I was a member. I smiled and said, “I wish I knew when I was doing it so I could plan it for the next time!” The executive director laughed and patted me on the back but the truth was, I had no idea I was doing it. Sometimes wit comes out at the right time without thought but that’s rare. Luckily the comments I made were usually about my inability to understand what was being said. The blame always fell on me and other board members appreciated me saying what they were thinking about themselves. A quite admiration for having the guts to say aloud the truth, wrapped in humor, about something not so funny. If you feel you just aren’t funny enough to try a sense of humor that is client safe, then just smile whenever speaking with a client. Even over the phone, a smile comes through and it makes the other person feel good. In the end, that’s what humor does for people – it makes them feel good about themselves.

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