Humor for Selling Products and for Selling Your Message

Twenty to thirty years ago, humor was commonly used to sell low-priced products. We remember Mr. Whipple squeezing the Charmin and Clara Peller asking “Where’s the beef?” Today, when you watch TV, you’re likely to see humor being used to sell automobiles. Over the years, advertisers have gained a greater appreciation of the value of humor for feeling good, building relationships and selling products. And so have speakers come to appreciate the more sophisticated value of humor for selling their message.

As advertising campaigns become more expensive ($2.6 million for a 30 second Super Bowl ad), we realize that the success of humor goes far beyond the question of humor or no-humor. And as speaker, the importance of our speech has also risen as the cost of holding the meeting soars. Although humor definitely helps with getting attention, getting remembered, getting repeated, building trust…it’s really a complicated process as one goes from the writer’s pen to actually making the sale or selling an idea.

  1. Target Market
    The right match to the target market is critical. A humor piece that falls flat to the general public but which is mostly loved by your target market, is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. Customization of the humor to your target market is part of what will make the humor click. If people outside your target don’t get it, that’s not a major concern. If your target market doesn’t like it…we have a problem. And in speaking from the platform, it’s also humor customized to the audience that hits the home run.
  2. Brand Identification
    The linkage of the product being sold to the commercial advertisement is often missed in humor ads. Having an advertisement which people love is good, but if nobody remembers what product was being advertised, that’s very bad. A television commercial I have enjoyed three or four times is one that features a businessman making a phone call to his wife from a new car or a rental car. He’s using a hands-free phone to make the call and at the same time is using a GPS to give him directions to his hotel. The wife hears the GPs computer synthesized woman’s voice over the phone. “Is that a woman’s voice?” The computer then says, “The hotel is on the left.” The wife hangs up. The driver speaks into the hands-free phone, “Call florist.” Cute commercial, and afterwards I thought it was selling a car (not a GPs system or a cell phone), but even though I had watched it several times I couldn’t remember which brand of car.I saw it again last night. It’s a Toyota commercial. I had to make myself pay attention to see what brand was being advertised. Probably not a good thing. Brand recognition should be viewer tested before launching the campaign. And maybe it was and I’m the only one who missed the brand in the ad. Make sure you don’t lose the product in the middle of a joke. And as a speaker, be sure that your message isn’t smothered by irrelevant jokes. The humor must help people remember the brand and the message.
  3. Relevant Humor
    The challenge advertisers face is the same challenge public speakers run into. Because speakers know that humor has a certain power, they often force fit a joke into their talk that has nothing to do with the message. Often it’s the open-with-a-joke formula that gets a talk off to a bad start as the audience is thinking “why did he/she tell that joke?” Magician speakers often fall into the same trap. They LOVE their magic and often force-fit a magic trick into their talk linking it to a contrived message. The trick, whether you’re an ad writer or speaker, is to make the humor an organic part of the message. It has to blend in as a natural part of the storyline and product message or speech theme so that it compliments it and does not conflict or compete with it. When there is a disconnect, although the audience might be somewhat entertained, they are also confused and no points are scored. And nothing, neither a product nor an idea, gets sold.
  4. Culture Link
    Another factor is the linkage between the culture of the operations staff, the marketing people (especially the customer-service front line) and the PR folks. A humor-driven advertising campaign for a company which has a low score on the corporate-culture-sense-of-humor scale is a mis-match. The prospect sees one thing on the ads and another when contacting or visiting the company. The speaker has the same challenge to walk-the-talk. If you’re going to use humor in your talk, let’s hope you have a sense of humor off the platform!I’ve never had the task of finding an ad agency which was great at advertising strategy AND humor skills. But from the ads I’ve seen, I can tell that it would be a challenging search. Being funny AND selling to your target market is not an art easily mastered. Being a funny speaker with a message takes work too. However, it’s worth the effort!