Fears of a Clown: Why Brands Trying To Be Funny Is No Laughing Matter

If this year’s Super Bowl is anything to go by then humour is back in vogue, but how can brands get it right? Analysis of this year’s Super Bowl ads indicates mixing humour with other strong emotions is more impactful, writes Ian Forrester, CEO of global creative effectiveness platform DAIVID.

Ian Forrester

Ian Forrester

10 Mar 2024

Original article was published on the WARC website.

Adland has finally got its sense of humour back. That’s right, after years of seemingly trying to find itself and taking itself too seriously, the industry is starting to see the funny side of life once again.

It’s no joke. Looking at our own data, we’re already seeing a huge upswing towards humour as marketers look to make us laugh again – some successfully, some less so. 

Not always the quickest to act on the latest trends, even the industry has been quick to recognise this new-found interest from brands in making people chuckle, with Cannes Lions adding a new humour category to this year’s awards.

It’s certainly welcome. Let’s face it, we could all do with a laugh right now. Whether it’s struggling with the cost of living or generally feeling like you have to hide behind the sofa every time the news comes on the TV, ads have the power to provide a welcome distraction from the day-to-day stresses and strains of modern life. 

Besides, if advertisers insist on making us watch their content, the least they can do is lighten the mood.

But if 2024 is set to be the year when humour once again takes centre stage in Adland – like some old comedian getting ready for a comeback tour – there are a number of challenges it needs to overcome.

First of all, as any comic will tell you, trying to be funny is no laughing matter, likely to lead to more missteps than successes.

Take the Super Bowl. Here at DAIVID, we recently analysed how people felt about this year’s Big Game ads – and the results speak columns about the obstacles Adland’s big comedy comeback faces.

While two-thirds of the c.60 Big Game campaigns we tested used humour as the main emotional driver, only seven managed to make more than a quarter of their audience actually laugh out loud.

SuperBowl 58: Use of Humour pie chart, which shows 56% mild humor, 32% other emotions, and 12% laugh out loud

The result? A rather lacklustre Super Bowl filled with under-performing ads. When DAIVID measured the overall effectiveness of all the ads from this year’s sporting spectacle, the ads scored 4% lower than the US average, with brand recall 9% lower than the norm. Sure, that’s not a massive difference, but when you consider the super-sized levels of investment at the Big Game, it’s hugely disappointing.

That’s because humour – despite being a very effective emotion for advertisers – is also the hardest to achieve. To move the dial, brands have to make people laugh. A knowing smirk is not going to cut it – to be memorable and drive brand performance an ad needs to be greeted with gales of laughter rather than warm smiles.

But ask yourself, how many ads can you remember that genuinely made you laugh out loud? Personally, I am struggling to come up with more than five, but maybe I’m just hard to please.

That’s because to really make people laugh often means brands making difficult choices that could offend some viewers, which, of course, they are understandably reluctant to do. As any best man writing his speech will tell you, getting the right balance between genuinely funny content that’s also family-friendly is almost impossible. Humour really splits audiences. Often making some people giggle out loud means alienating others.

For example, of all the ads we have tested at DAIVID, a campaign that generated one of the highest scores for humour was an old ad for Zazoo titled “Use Condoms”, which uses a screaming child in a supermarket to get its message across (yes, it’s old, but it’s well worth a watch). While many people (35%) found the ad intensely funny, 10% were disgusted and 6% felt contempt towards the ad.

For brands looking to make people laugh, that means getting comfortable with making some people uncomfortable. A more recent example of this is the brilliant Super Bowl ad for skincare brand CeraVe, which stars actor Michael Cera.

The campaign made a quarter of the people who watched the ad snigger, but almost as many people found the ad awkward and confusing. But it would never have generated as many laughs as it did without the brand willing to risk alienating some of its audience.

But there is a risk to playing it safe as brands will simply not be able to generate the intense emotional impact needed to drive significant results for the brand. Some recent examples of this are Tesco’s ‘The Label’ and Beyonce’s Super Bowl campaign for Verizon.

Despite both using humour as the key emotional driver, they both largely failed to make people laugh. Only 1 in 10 people found “Can’t B Broken” actually funny, while even fewer laughed at the supermarket chain’s commercial (2%). Interestingly, 38% found the Tesco ad mildly funny.

Such a lukewarm response to both ads meant they scored below average for brand recall – Tesco scoring 65% and Verizon managing 68%. Put simply, neither of the two ads were funny enough for people to remember them.

There is also the rather thorny issue of humour being rather subjective. What one person finds funny can leave another scratching their head. So what can brands do?

Well, one way is to not rely solely on humour to have an impact. Looking at this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads, a lot of them stuck the house on making people chuckle. But, of course, brands don’t have to follow this ‘funny or die’ strategy.

Instead, by mixing humour with other strong emotions they have a back-up plan if the jokes fail to land. Uber Eats’ “Don’t Forget”, which not only scored highly for amusement (24.3%), but also interest (17.8%), nostalgia (12.2%) and excitement (12.2%), did this perfectly. The result was an ad that generated a high brand recall of 80.4%.

Surprise and humour is a particularly potent mixture and a great way to create powerful brand memories.

One example of this is Snickers ‘Hungry Builders’, in which builders replace sexist comments with gender-positive ones (again, sorry to use really old ads, but this probably tells its own story). Just plain oddness can also work (Geico ‘Scapegoat’), while the fact Pepsi Max’s classic ‘Test Drive’ is still funny 10 years on is testament to the fact a good old-fashioned surprising reveal can also pack a punch.

Alternatively, you can decide to not follow the crowd and step away from Adland’s comedy comeback tour completely. The NFL did just that with its “Born To Play” campaign, which, interestingly, topped our list of the most effective ads from Super Bowl 58. Why? Because unlike 66% of the other brands at the Big Game, it tried something different that made it stand out, with a high percentage finding the content inspiring and warm, while 83.5% correctly identified the brand after watching the commercial.




Just because the industry has declared 2024 to be the year that humour returns to advertising, it doesn’t mean you have to jump in the same clown car.