Adland’s Comedy Comeback Of 2024 Has Got Off To A Rough Start

Heard that humor is hot in advertising right now? You must be having a laugh. Despite advertisers predicted to pick up the stand-up mic this year after seemingly taking itself a little too seriously – the ad industry has so far barely managed to register a titter.

Ian Forrester

Ian Forrester

29 Mar 2024

Original article appeared on the ANA website

A few celeb jokes at the Super Bowl that raised a few smiles, but other than that it’s hardly been a laugh a minute. Cannes Lions must be slightly worried they won’t have enough entries to choose from for their new humor category.

OK, like some grim-faced punter at a stand-up gig with their hands crossed steadfastly refusing to laugh at any jokes – no matter how funny – I admit, I’m being harsh. Plus, it’s not even Spring yet, so still plenty of time left.

Besides, there have been funny moments this year. CeraVe’s Super Bowl ad has been a standout moment, although admittedly more likely to generate knowing smiles than split sides. 

However, when we measured the emotional responses to this year’s Super Bowl ads, it was hardly a standout year for comedy. Two-thirds of the 60 ads we tested tried to be funny, but only seven managed to make more than a quarter of their audience actually laugh.

Maybe with so much hype around the return of humor, expectations were a little higher than normal this year. However, for a year where humor is once again expected to take center stage it’s interesting that 2024 has so far been dominated by campaigns that focus on very different emotions.

For example, Calvin Klein’s Spring 2024 campaign, featuring the rather unamusing sight of Jeremy Allen White inexplicably walking across the rooftops of New York in his undies.

Who would have thought the sight of a surprisingly toned guy in tight, white pants making some half-hearted attempts at some kind of exercise along the Big Apple skyline would generate so much attention? 

As they say, sex sells, and this campaign generated more than three times the amount of sexual desire among female viewers than average. Overall, Trust (in the Calvin Klein brand) and Inspiration (presumably at getting people to get off their sofas and tone up) were the two most intense emotions – way above the market norm.

 Interestingly, the ad also made an unintentional contribution to Adland’s comedy comeback, with almost 1 in 10 viewers laughing out loud at the slightly odd premise of the campaign. Boredom (11.8%), Confusion (9.8%) and Awkwardness (9.2%) were also highly prevalent. 

Another one of the most talked about ads of the year is Uncommon’s sad dad creative for Quaker Oats – “You’ve Got This”. Many have tried to watch this ad – a story of fatherhood and feelings over bowls of oatmeal – without reaching for the tissues. The vast majority failed. 

The ad has been one of the strongest performers this year, generating intense positive emotions from 57.5% of the people who watched it, while a robust 85% were able to correctly identify the Quakers brand behind it after watching. Surprisingly, sadness was not one of the top emotions. Instead, the most intense emotions people felt were Warmth (26.1%), Nostalgia (10.5%) and Craving (9.2%), which all scored way above the market average.  

Not exactly a laughathon so far, is it? Even the most effective ad from this year’s Super Bowl, usually a haven for funny ads, was an ad that looked to inspire viewers rather than make them laugh – the NFL’s “Born To Play” campaign.

So why has the return of humor got off to such a rocky start? Well, firstly, making people laugh is far from easy.  What some find funny, others struggle to even pretend to smile at. Personally, I struggle to find anything remotely amusing about Seinfeld, yet I am reliably informed it’s one of the funniest TV shows ever created.

Humor may be one of the most effective emotions at driving ad performance, but it’s also one of the hardest to get right.  To really push the dial and make people laugh out loud, you need to be brave. Problem is you then run the risk of alienating half your audience. That’s hard enough for a comedian trying to get their material right ahead of a big comeback tour, but for brands it’s almost an almost impossible choice. 

As we know, advertisers are resistant to taking too many unnecessary risks, which means the vast majority of content created specifically to make people laugh barely registers half-smiles. 

So what can brands do to make us laugh again?


Own it

One option is to own the fact some people will be put off by your ad. This doesn’t matter, as long as the majority of your target audience finds the ad funny. A great example of this was Kmart’s ‘Ship My Pants’. The ad was loved by the majority (72%) of K-Mart’s middle American audience, only putting off a minority (5%) of more conservative, older viewers. 


Test your ad

There are many solutions that help advertisers test the emotional and brand impact of their ads. Yet, the vast majority of campaigns are pushed out without any testing whatsoever. That’s largely because of the sheer number and range of creatives now being distributed across so many different platforms and channels these days it’s hard to keep up. It’s simply too expensive and time-consuming. 

However, there are many AI-powered tools now available (including our own) that can help advertisers measure how people feel about their campaigns pre-launch. That way they can optimize their campaigns to ensure they generate the biggest possible laughs – while also ensuring their content boosts their bottom line. 

You may think you’ve created the funniest joke ever known to humankind, but your audience will quickly tell you just how deluded you are, 


Do something different

Just because someone has deemed 2024 is the year humor makes its highly-anticipated comedy comeback to Adland, doesn’t mean you have to follow. 

Humor may not always be right for your brand. I’m not sure funeral services should be aiming to make people laugh, but then some would disagree. “Dumb Ways To Die” somehow managed to somehow make train safety very funny, so anything is possible with the right creative spark. 

So feel free to throw your red nose away and focus on the emotions you think are right for you. 

Also, it’s worth pointing out the return-to-humor narrative is usually pitched as Adland ditching purpose in favor of telling a few jokes. Like the industry has been taking itself a little bit too seriously recently, focusing on important environmental and societal issues and is now trying to lighten up a bit. But the two are not mutually exclusive, you can be purposeful and funny.  


Don’t rely on humor

You only need to look at the Super Bowl to see how dangerous relying on humor can be. But there’s no need for this funny-or-die approach. Some of the most impactful campaigns mix humor with other emotions. That way, if your ad doesn’t make people laugh, it always has other emotions to fall back on. 


Measure, Mix, Maximize

If advertisers want to make us laugh, we’re all for it. Problem is, humor is a tough emotion to master and comes with a lot of potential issues. 


So for brands looking to get serious about humor this year, make sure you take the necessary steps to maximize your success, including measuring the emotional impact of your content beforehand and mixing your emotions so the success of your campaign is not solely based on making people laugh.  Otherwise the joke could be on you.