Use humor in marketing wisely

People are drawn to humor. Stephen Sondheim’s zany “A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum” opens with the lyrics “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.” And, it’s true. People love to laugh, and most folks will head towards humor as opposed to an evening of Euripides’ greatest hits.

Urban Outfitters is one company that has seen misguided attempts at humor backfire.

Urban Outfitters is one company that has seen misguided attempts at humor backfire.

Good marketing involves first and foremost attracting people’s attention. Humor does that. Humor can keep people interested in your pitch, so they desire your product and take action. The right kind of humor, that is.

Many of us have our favorite laugh-out-loud TV commercials, which instantly bring to mind the products they pitched. Some of my favorites have always included Alka Seltzer’s “Spicy Meatball” or “I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing:” Ann Miller as a tap-dancing housewife in “The Great American Soup,” Betty White getting tackled for a Snickers bar, and Broadway’s “Grand Hotel” “man on the street interviews” (which still make me laugh). They all poke fun of a situation. They’re indelible.

Good humor vs. outrage walks a fine line. Spirit Airlines, a low-cost air carrier known for a slew of customer complaints about extra fees, created a lot of buzz with some commercials that took humor to the edge, mostly through very thinly-veiled sexual innuendo. When rising politician Anthony Weiner got caught sexting, Spirit Airlines launched “The Big Weiner Sale.” Hot dog, it captured the media’s and public’s attention. When the oil spill threatened the Gulf, they talked about their oil-filled beaches with young women oiling up with suntan oils. Attention-getting, yes ! Tasteful…hardly. But, Spirit got more attention for low fares, and their campaign seemed to work.

Then, Urban Outfitters recently crossed the line with a bloodstained Kent State sweatshirt. Anyone around at the time of the tragic Kent State shootings was appalled. But, the merchant got plenty of buzz for bad taste. Will it backfire? Who knows.

I asked Elaina Newport, co-founder of the immensely popular political musical satire ensemble, The Capitol Steps, about the role of humor. They’ve been specialists at making people laugh about politicians on both sides of the aisle and world politics on both sides of the pond for over 30 years.

“The Capitol Steps,” says Newport, have poked fun at people and situation. “We get most of our material from politicians, who sometimes seem to be working for the comedians!  Anyone who runs for office has put themselves out there and is fair game. On the other hand, we might stay away from Malia and Sasha, since they didn’t ask for the spotlight.”

“A lot of stories in the news are really not funny on any level,” added Newport, “but even in the most serious situation there is often a politician messing it up. I remember this was the case with Hurricane Katrina. Not funny! But we went after FEMA and ‘Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.’”

As for the Urban Outfitters ads, Newport says, “Well, using outrage is not our style at all, because the Capitol Steps do lots of entertaining for corporate events, and corporate event planners want to be sure you’re not crossing that line. When we handle serious issues, it’s with a pun and a politician and a song. So, for example, Putin in the Ukraine is handled in a song called ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Crimea?’”

Newport knows The Capitol Steps market. Make sure you know yours, if you’re planning to inject humor into your marketing campaign. Some businesses such as funeral parlors, law firms, therapists, counselors and such might want to shy away. If humor is appropriate to your product, think cautiously as to how best to use it.

Stay away from controversial subjects in your jokes line–individuals and religion should be taboo. Individuals in the public spotlight give up their right to be exempt from public ridicule; however their families should be exempt. Remember, if the joke flops, it reflects badly on your business…and you.

Some good resources for adding humor to your marketing mix.

Why Funny TV Commercials Work. From The Atlantic.

Humor in Advertising by Mark Levitt. for

A good analysis of the Urban Outfitters campaign.

The Washington Post recap of Urban Outfitters’ blood-stained Kent State sweatshirt.

Reviews of Spirit Airlines’ Marketing Campaign:

Spirit Airlines’ “Weiner Sale.”

Business Insider on Spirit.

NPR’s “All Things Considered” story on Spirit Airlines ads.

Spirit’s Oil Spill Ad.

And some very funny commercials.

The Grand Hotel commercial.

Alka Seltzer “”Spicy Meatball”.

Alka Seltzer “I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”

Ann Miller: The Great American Soup.

Betty White Snickers:


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.

1 comment

  1. I totally agree with your point of view. Marketing is not an easy task. It takes time and lot of hardworking. Anyhow, thanks for sharing the nice article with us. News is the best source of information and knowledge related to current world affairs or any specific industry.

Leave a Reply

The Self-Employment Survival Guide can help you succeed. Learn all about it here.

Self-Employment Survival Guide book cover