On Monday mornings 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 shocked and cracked you up.
Humor has always been a powerful force when used to entertain, educate and sell. But humor is especially important now—according to “The Happiness Report” co-authored by Oracle and Gretchen Rubin, 45% of respondents “have not felt true happiness for more than two years” and 78% said they would be “willing to pay a premium for true happiness.” Despite just over 90% of respondents having a preference for brands that are funny, however, responding business leaders said “only 20% of their brands’ offline ads (TV, billboards) and 18% of their online ads actively use humor.” Additionally, just “16% of business leaders said that their brands use humor to sell.”
Brands that know what’s good for them will not only use humor. They’ll take a risk with messages that test the limits, says Ellis Verdi, president and co-founder of the DeVito/Verdi agency.
“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 edgy advertising humor is that it makes people think, tells the truth and says what people are 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.”
Tips for creating an advertising campaign with edgy humor
When considering your own edgy advertising humor, reflect on these expert tips:
- 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.
- 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.”
Chamberlain’s Advertising Campaign with Edgy Humor
Brian Chamberlain, Founder
Brand: Chamberlain, a Burlington, Ontario, Canada-based architecture, construction and interior design firm.
Campaign: “Sleep with Chamberlain. Everyone else does.”
Result: Business in that division went up 10% 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 have been major hotel chains. They could go five years between new developments, so it was hard for us to stay connected with them.
The “Sleep with Chamberlain. Everybody else does.” 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 didn’t want to appear frivolous. At that point, we had been in business for 33 years and had never used edgy advertising humor like that.
As soon as we decided to move forward, it proved to be a great concept—it never failed to get a chuckle. There is so much advertising out there, so much competition. This really grabbed people’s attention. They always remarked about the campaign—it was, by definition, remarkable.
It was the biggest advertising win for us in our history, so we planned to use edgy humor in other ways. For example, on every construction site, builders always post an information sign—usually something very straightforward—with notes about their safety standards. We started a new campaign that unabashedly stated, “Safety is Sexy.”
Humor won’t define us. What defines us is our creativity and design quality. We are involved in big projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also use humor to attract people to our talents.
Repair.com’s Edgy Ad Campaign
Sean Skelley, Former Senior Vice President
Brand: Repair.com, a former online service that connected 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: The edgy humor advertising campaign was 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 when you’d call retailers directly and they would send a repairman straight to your home.
To break through those assumptions and connect with the customer, we knew we had to use humor. The trick was to tap into what people were 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 buttcrack imagery. On one hand it was simply funny—everyone made jokes about plumbers and their cleavage. It came up in everyday conversation. It was familiar and true. The ad drew the eye but also communicated 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 was a resounding success. We had people call after seeing our ads just to say they appreciated thoughtful marketing. A number of people called, even though they didn’t have a pressing repair need, just to learn more about our services—something which was remarkable in our industry.
As a startup, one of our biggest challenges was simply getting the word out about what we did to get people talking about us. This edgy advertising humor conveyed our message, and also got people to notice us.
This article was published in March 2014 and has been updated. Photo by OPOLJA/Shutterstock
Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. 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.