How To: Crack Wise for Edgy Advertising

Monday morning at the office everyone is talking about the latest envelope-pushing Saturday Night Live skit. Invariably, the Super Bowl ad that gets the most buzz is the one that both shocked and cracked you up.

Humor has always been a powerful force when used to entertain, educate and sell. But humor—particularly, humor that pushes the limits of acceptability—is having a special moment in advertising. Comedy Central recently surveyed men born after 1981 and found that 63 percent said that in the event they were stuck in an elevator, they would choose to be with Jon Stewart, while just 15 percent would prefer to hang with a favorite pro athlete.

Brands that know what’s good for them will take a risk with messages that test the limits of what’s appropriate, says Ellis Verdi, president of the DeVito/Verdi agency in New York City.

“Smaller businesses can’t afford not to take a risk—the smaller you are, the more you have to stand out,” Verdi says. “The biggest impact you can have with a small budget is to reveal who you are and what is unique about you.” The essence of a humorous ad is that it makes people think, tells the truth and says what people are already thinking. “The most powerful messages reveal truth,” Verdi says.

And the edgy part? Is that for every brand? “Unless you get a few letters of complaint, you have not done your job. The biggest waste of advertising money is when you get no reaction,” Verdi says. “Remember, just because someone is complaining doesn’t mean they’re not buying your service.”

When considering your own edgy humor campaign, reflect on these expert tips:

• Think about the most revealing, honest thing you can say about your business. “The best jokes are about something everyone knows is true but no one has courage to talk about,” says Dave Schiff, chief creative officer at the agency Made Movement, based in Boulder, Colo. “It’s a matter of harnessing what is being said in peer-to-peer conversation and making it relevant to your brand.”

• Weigh the cost-to-impact ratio. “If you have a small budget or no budget, you really have no choice but to be disruptive and a little crazy,” Schiff says.

• Disruptive and edgy doesn’t have to mean profane or acrimonious. “Sometimes disruption is genuine, soulful and subtle,” Schiff says.

• Push your own boundaries. Does the idea of sharing this message make you nervous? Freak you out a little? It should. “If you’re totally comfortable with it, it is too safe,” Verdi says. “It’s like the stock market: When it makes you nervous, you should buy.”

• Show it to a few people. If they dig it, you’re definitely onto something.

• Don’t do funny just for funny’s sake or shock for the sake of shock. “Be true to the message and product,” Schiff says. “You can’t just have a funny skit and tack the company logo on the end of a video. It has to advance the cause of the business.”

• Remember: Entrepreneurship is risky business. Taking on a risqué ad campaign is no more dicey than starting a business in the first place, Verdi points out. “You have an advantage in that you are close to decision-making and can work from the gut,” he says to small-business owners. “Large corporations often lose that edginess that connects with consumers.”


Brian Chamberlain


Brand: Chamberlain, an Ontario, Canada-based construction and design firm with a division specializing in hospitality projects

Campaign: “Sleep with Chamberlain. Everyone else does.” (See photo above.)

Result: Business in that division is up 10 percent over the prior year, with new contracts across Canada; Chamberlain also reconnected with old clients and received lots of positive feedback.

One of our big problems is that we only do so many projects each year, and many of our clients are the major hotel chains. They could go five years between new developments, so it’s hard for us to stay connected with them.

“Sleep with Chamberlain. Everybody else does.” The campaign was designed by our in-house public relations head. We had a lot of internal resistance—design and construction are pretty serious businesses. There’s lots of money involved, and we don’t want to appear frivolous. We’ve been in business for 33 years and had never used humor like this.

As soon as we decided to move forward, it proved to be a great concept for us—it never fails to get a chuckle. There is so much advertising out there, so much competition. This really grabs people’s attention. They always remark about the campaign—it is, by definition, remarkable.

It’s the biggest advertising win for us in our history, so we plan to use edgy humor in other ways. For example, on every construction site, builders always post an information sign with notes about their safety standards. They’re usually something very straightforward like, “Safety is our Job No. 1.” We are starting a new campaign that unabashedly states, “Safety is Sexy.”

Humor won’t define us. What defines us is our creativity and design quality. These are big projects involving hundreds of millions of dollars. You can’t afford to appear flip. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also use humor to attract people to your talents.


Roger Berkowitz


Brand: Legal Sea Foods, a Boston-based restaurant chain with locations along the East Coast

Campaign: A series of short videos with themes that poke fun at environmentalist stances on fishing

Result: The ads led to total customer recall and generated lots of buzz, including a Fox News segment and USA Today story debating the controversial nature of the ads.

I’ve always enjoyed an edgier approach to advertising. In the 1970s we sold a T-shirt that said, “I got scrod at Legal Sea Foods.” Half the people got the double entendre. Some people would buy the T-shirt, take it home and then later get the joke—and call angrily. Another time I ran an ad that said, “If your mother didn’t take the time to check your fish for purity, you shouldn’t feel bad about checking her into a nursing home.” My own mother called me up and yelled at me. You always run the risk of making people mad. But that just means you’re making them think.

A few years ago we ran a series of 15-second spots that mock public-service ads. (Watch the ads here.)

“Save the trout,” says the narrator. “Save it to swim another day through golden brooks and sunlit streams…. Or just save it so we can grill that baby up real nice.”

We’re based in a fishing town, and we’re in the seafood business. We understand how conservationists have run roughshod over fishermen. The ads feature salmon, trout and crabs (none of which are endangered), and are meant to poke fun but also educate the public. They work because you have to be smart to get them. Part of our brand is that fish is brain food. If you’re not smart enough to get my ads, then you’re not my target audience.

We know the ads work because everywhere I go people can recite the words verbatim. Not a day goes by when I don’t bump into someone who says, “I love your ads when X, Y or Z happens.” Even when people occasionally call and say they’re offended, they then go on to repeat them word for word.

This kind of humor resonates with younger customers especially. They were raised on South Park, not Disney. As we roll out new, more casual restaurant concepts, this edgier advertising is part and parcel of the evolution of our business.

So many business owners are afraid to take risks. But the biggest risk is not taking one. You can choose not to offend and be milquetoast, but then your chances of bursting out of the pack are diminished.


Sean Skelley

Senior Vice President

Brand:, an online service connecting consumers with home repair businesses in their area

Campaign: A series of provocative photo-driven ads, most notably commenting on the revealing backside of a plumber at work

Result: These ads were key in beating growth goals and attracted complimentary calls.

The repair business is not exactly a glamorous one, and it actually has a lot of negative connotations. It is something that you worry about only when you have a problem. Plus, people associate home repairs with spending a lot of money and waiting a long time for someone to come to their home to fix whatever is broken. The industry has changed considerably from 20 years ago, when you’d call retailers directly and they would send a repairman straight to your home.

To break through those old assumptions and connect with the customer, we knew we had to use humor. The trick was to tap into what people are already thinking while still communicating our value.

Our agency pitched us dozens of ideas, and I was hesitant about the plumber’s crack campaign. I was worried it would offend people or that newspapers wouldn’t allow it. But to get to the root of our problems breaking into the market, I knew we had to be risky in some way.

Ultimately we went with the butt-crack imagery. On one hand it is simply funny—everyone makes jokes about plumbers and their cleavage. It comes up in everyday conversation. It’s familiar and true. The ad draws the eye but also communicates the value of what we do: “They’re working hard and are unfortunately exposing this. But they are there to fix the problem.” It wasn’t merely a joke.

I’m very glad we went with the ad. It was a critical part of our campaign, which has been a resounding success. We’ve had people call after seeing our ads just to say they appreciate thoughtful marketing. A number of people called, even though they didn’t have a pressing repair need, just to learn more about our services—that’s remarkable in our industry.

We are a startup, so one of our biggest challenges is simply getting out the word about what we do to get people talking about us. This ad conveyed our message, and also got people to notice us.


Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.

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