Unfunny like a clown: The power and pitfalls of humorous marketing content

humor in marketing

I’m a certified coulrophobic – one of those people who are terrified of clowns, and not just the kind born in Stephen King’s dark imagination. This has been so ever since Chicago’s 1972 St. Patrick’s Day parade, when a cute 3-year-old spectator was lifted off his father’s shoulders and deposited into the outstretched arms of a marching, insidiously grinning Ronald McDonald. Through screams of horror, I wondered what transgression I had committed that would make my parents give me away to such a mustard-hued monster.

Of course, other kids may have reacted to the same incident with smiles and screams of delight. One person’s moment of laughter is another person’s years of therapy. Such is the subjectivity of funny. That same subjectivity – on a less traumatic level – is what makes the use of humor an often-tricky proposition for those who want to include it in their marketing content.

Strategically deployed, purposeful humor is a powerful way to connect with your audience. It can enliven a mundane topic or demonstrate the essence of your company’s perspective. People like to laugh, and if you can associate your company or product with a moment of levity during an otherwise hectic and stressful day, chalk that up as a win.

But humor can fall flat or even backfire when used inappropriately. Effective comedy, whether in front of a microphone or on a website, depends on three key factors: context, timing and “knowing the room” (the prospects and customers you want to attract).

  • Context. Humor can turn hideous when used in a context where it would be clearly inappropriate. If you work at a personal injury law firm, for example, your wrongful death practice area page is not the place for a few yuks. You can use humor to make a serious point, but only if that serious point lends itself to a lighthearted spin. Make sure any attempts at humor work in the context of the underlying subject matter.
  • Timing. What is funny at the moment you post something online depends on the moment you post something online. We have all heard the cries of “too soon!” from an audience when a comedian jokes about a recent tragedy. Even without intent, content can be overtaken by events, like when a TV episode filmed months ago about a terror attack is shelved because of a subsequent incident that made it no longer appropriate. Pay attention to the world around you – the zeitgeist – to avoid cringeworthy attempts at humor that make you look tone deaf or out of touch.
  • Knowing the room. The subjectivity of funny is often demonstrated demographically. An attempt at humor that uses current pop culture references may hit the mark with millennials but leave boomers scratching their heads. Similarly, if you know that visitors to your site tend to have a certain base of knowledge or shared perspective, you can tailor your humor in a way that hits them directly. It’s critical that you know who you are talking to when trying to bring the funny. Steve Martin made this point in a joke that was hilarious – if you were a plumber.

Of course, humor works only if it’s actually funny. Not every attempt will slay your readers, but if you can avoid the pitfalls described above, don’t be deterred from clowning around a bit.

Have you used humor in your marketing or other business communications? How did people react to it? Let us know in the comments below.

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