April Fools! “Marketing Matters” on the Humor in Advertising

Aired April 1, 2015

This week on the April Fools edition of Marketing Matters, Catharine Hays and Jerry Wind hosted a special show, focused on humor in marketing. Guests with many different perspectives on funny advertising gave insights into what makes humor in advertising work, and what happens when it doesn’t.

The first guest was Rebecca Cullers, a contributor for Adweek and the writer of its Best of the Brand Hoaxes on April Fools Day. “When I first started Best of the Brand in 2009 there were no previews; I would just wake up on April 1 and start hunting,” explains Cullers. “Now, people let me know days or weeks in advance what they are planning, they really start prepping their hoaxes early.” April Fools is a marketing tool used by big and small companies alike, but for smaller brands it can really pay off. “A good hoax can be a great way for a company that normally doesn’t get much coverage to get a lot of press,” she notes.

What makes a good April Fools Hoax? Previously, a cleverly photoshopped image was all it took, but changes in marketing platforms and audience means that increasingly, videos are key. “Younger audiences are far more likely to be amused by—and share—a good hoax video, especially if it is backed up by a believable website,” Cullers says. Today, bigger brands are using April Fools as an opportunity either to step out of their normal narrative or to push their existing marketing strategy with a humorous, often self-aware twist.

Contributor for Adweek and the writer of its Best of the Brand Hoaxes
Rebecca Cullers, Contributor for Adweek and the writer of its Best of the Brand Hoaxes

April Fools is particularly popular amongst non-retail brands that don’t focus on the more commercial holidays. “Tech companies love April Fools,” Cullers says. “It’s a way to show innovation, and to entertain.” This year Google, a famous hoaxer, developed PacMan for Google Maps and created a mirror site com.google, where the text for the whole search engine was reversed. “The interesting thing about April Fools is that really doesn’t have much sales impact, it really is just about entertainment,” she explains.

Of course retail companies do get involved, too. “One of the best thing about April Fools is fake products that create such hype companies end up making them for real,” says Cullers. One example of a hoax she hopes to see for sale is Target’s FannyBasket, a supermarket basket you could wear attached to your waist, complete with coffee holder. “It was a great joke, but if enough people on social media demand the FannyBasket, Target might just go out and make it for them,” she laughs.

The next guest on Marketing Matters works with marketing humor from a very different perspective. Dr. Duane Varan, the Director of the Audience Research Labs at Murdoch University and the Founder and CEO of MediaScience uses biometrics—facial recognition software—to research what people find funny.

“We’re lucky that our definition of humor is more physical than philosophical,” Varan explains. “For us, humor is reflected through smiling activity.” Advances in biometric software technology allow researchers to record peoples’ faces then translate their micro-movements into information. “The biometric software that exists is not accurate enough for most human emotions, but it is incredibly accurate when assessing smiling,” Varan explains. “Now that we have the algorithms right, we have a far more granular, second-by-second analysis of humor than we could get previously, when audiences would just tell you in broad strokes whether the content was or wasn’t funny.”

Often Varan’s studies reveal that what show or ad writers think is funny their audiences don’t, and vice versa. “We give this feedback to creatives, people who are normally assumed to distrust research” Varan says. “But in our case, they really appreciate it: writers want to know objectively if their jokes land, they want their writing to work. They just don’t want research that tells them to rewrite something to make an ad ‘effective.’”

Director of the Audience Research Labs at Murdoch University and the Founder and CEO of MediaScience
Duane Varan, Director of the Audience Research Labs at Murdoch University and the Founder and CEO of MediaScience

When asked what makes for good humor, Varan says the key is tension and release. “Something is a lot funnier if you have a better wind-up, and this is a solid piece of advice to give: build up tension, and make the joke pay off.” An unexpected example of this was the Presidential debates. “When candidates told jokes, especially spontaneous ones, smiles really registered off the charts,” he explains. “The tension is so high, and the humor so fleeting, it’s makes it really intense.”

This intensity is crucial to biometric best practice. At MediaScience, the key metric used is smile arc-length. “Other vendors often deliver their clients means, averaging out the amount of humor per show and assuming that a higher mean indicates a show will do better.” This approach is flawed, as it ignores the importance of wind-up and release, reflected in a shift from not smiling to smiling with greater arc-length. “When people are engaging in the journey, when they are on a rollercoaster ride, it’s much more powerful, “ Varan says. MediaScience is transparent about their use of this more effective metric, as clients need to be aware of what makes sound research. “Biometrics can predict humor, but clients need to know how the predictions are being made for the industry to grow, and to grow with credibility,” Varan says.

Next Marketing Matters welcomed Wharton alumni Craig Elbert, Vice President of Marketing at Bonobos. Bonobos, a men’s fashion brand that started in e-commerce, has produced a series of campaigns on April Fools day. “Humor is a great currency to transport a brand,” says Elbert. “As a start-up company you don’t have lots of dollar resources, so you have to be clever and creative to get the word out there.”

In 2013, Bonobos made a video for the ‘Girlfriend Jean,’ a spin on the boyfriend jean trend, using the tagline ‘because sometimes a guy’s favorite pair of jeans aren’t guy jeans at all.’ The idea for the video was developed in-house; it even stars a then-member of the Bonobos team. “The idea for all our April Fools hoaxes come from our team,” explains Elbert. “We don’t ask an outside ad agency to pitch us an idea, and we don’t limit the concept development to the creative department—there is humor and talent throughout the company. The best concepts are often thought up organically, often while the team is out having a beer.”

Humor, then, is not just a way to engage or garner new customers, it has a productive value in-house. “Our team love the April Fools concepts,” says Elbert. “It’s something they really rally around, it makes them proud of the company.”

The girlfriend jean “campaign” was certainly a successful use of humor: on April Fools the Bonobos site got as much traffic as it did on cyber Monday. But Elbert was aware that using humor was a delicate process. “Bonobos is a brand that uses wit and cleverness year round, but there is a healthy tension,” he says. “You don’t want to make

Craig Elbert, Vice President of Marketing at Bonobos
Craig Elbert, Vice President of Marketing at Bonobos

fun of your product too much or be too goofy. The aim is smart, intelligent humor that allows us to connect with guys without turning into an overly ironic brand.”

Elbert also discussed a less common conception of April Fools hoaxes: market testing. One year, Bonobos’ April Fools joke was that it was launching a women’s line. “We used April Fools as a sounding board to see how our core customers—all men—would react to having the Bonobos label on women’s clothing,” Elbert explains. Bonobos has now expanded to women’s wear, but under a different label, Ayr. “We chose to give the women’s label a different name for several reasons, but the April Fools gag was a way to test the concept, to get natural reactions from guys with brand loyalty.” That Bonobos was a men’s brand to them was made clear.

The final guest on Marketing Matters was Dr. Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Director of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). “The question ‘what makes things funny’ has been studied for 2500 years, since Aristotle and Plato,” says McGraw. “But the advantage we have today is that we can the scientific method. By conducting experiments, we have moved the study of humor out of the hands of philosophers and into the hands of behavioral scientists.”

McGraw started HuRL when he was asked why, when told about moral violations, people often laugh. “It turns out that asking what makes things wrong it is a very similar question to asking what makes things funny,” he says. McGraw’s research argues that humor is based on “benign violations.” “Things that are wrong but OK, amiss yet understandable; these are benign violations,” he explains. “People say ‘comedy is

Dr. Peter McGraw, marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Director of the Humor Research Lab (HURL)
Dr. Peter McGraw, marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Director of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL)

tragedy plus time,’ and time essentially allows a violation to transition into a benign violation.” Conducting experiments to explore this idea is not easy—tragedies are difficult to predict—but by setting up experiments around Hurricane Sandy, HuRL was able to do so. “We did a survey before, immediately after, and far after the event,” McGraw explains. “And we found that immediately after the event, tweets about Sandy that had been funny before she hit were no longer so.” Over time, however, the humor value returned: the event became more benign, and therefore funny. “But what was really fascinating was that eventually, the tweets were no longer funny, they were boring. The sweet spot of benign violation had passed.”

The elusive nature of that sweet spot reveals how humor can be risky. And timing isn’t the only factor: “There is nothing that is universally funny,” says McGraw. “There are vast cultural differences that influence what is benign, and what isn’t. What’s wrong to one person might be OK to another, and the winning balance of wrong and OK—and therefore funny—to another.” This is, of course, why humor is also so important. “We value humor so greatly because when you share a laugh with someone, its an indicator you’ll get along with them, that you share the same world view.”

In advertising, McGraw explains, humor is as risky as it is rewarding. “Consumers don’t like advertising, but they do like humor, so a joke can make an ad—and by extension the brand—likeable,” he says. “Humor is also attention-getting, and can stick longer in someone’s memory.” But misjudging how benign a violation is, and thus missing the mark, can have serious consequences. And, McGraw explains, it is not the only risk. “A more subtle concern is, what does the kind of joke you’re making say about your brand? Is this the kind of identity you want to foster?” Finding the balance between brand integrity and entertainment is therefore the crux of a good April Fools—or any—marketing joke.