Gag Reflex: Why Gross Humour In Ads Can Often Leave A Bad Smell

Sometimes a negative impression, while lasting, won’t help your brand. To prove it, DAIVID CEO Ian Forrester takes a slightly too close look at Andrex’s ‘First Office Poo.’

Ian Forrester

Ian Forrester

26 Apr 2024

Original article appeared in The Drum.

The image still gets stuck in my head every time I think about ordering from Burger King. You know the one – the “Moldy Whopper”. Sad I know, but for a campaign that was universally loved and won a ton of awards, ever since the fast food chain decided to show a rotting burger to highlight that it’s removing artificial preservatives from its food, I’ve never been back. Every time I think about buying a Whopper Meal, I think about that image of the greenish-blue, furry burger and go to McDonald’s or KFC instead.

I know it’s wrong. As someone who has worked in the ad industry for over 15 years, I should recognise that amid a sea of sameness, Burger King was brave enough to do something different; a campaign that actually stood for something. But then I think about how disgusting that burger would feel and taste in my mouth and I can’t help it. It’s an image that’s hard to shake. 

Why am I talking about a campaign that came out in early 2020 – a pre-COVID that now feels like a lifetime ago? Well, I was reminded of it while watching Andrex’s latest ad campaign – “First Office Poo”. Part of its “Get Comfortable campaign”, the ad aims to ‘pull the chain’ on people’s squeamishness and prudishness around using public lavatories.

“First Office Poo”, as the title suggests, focuses on people’s hang-ups around going to the toilet at work. According to the brand’s research, 47% of UK adults won’t have a poo in the office. It features a woman who after breaking wind in the office is forced to run the gauntlet of going to the office loo. It’s all done with a heavy dose of toilet humour – the highlight being her taking a French-German dictionary into the bogs to read.

Created alongside a great partnership with Bowel Cancer UK and run during Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, the ad is obviously a distinct departure from Andrex’s previous cute ads (although the puppy does get a cameo). So what’s that got to do with mouldy burgers? Apart from the fact that you’d have to put all squeamishness around visiting the toilet at work firmly to one side if you actually ate one.

Well, it made me think about the use of negative emotions and whether they are effective at driving action for commercial brands. Like the Whopper ad, the ad has attracted a lot of praise in the press for its bravery in tackling the UK’s toilet taboos. But would that be enough to compel someone to actually buy Andrex toilet paper if they weren’t already? Judging by the YouTube comments alone – not always the best barometer admittedly – the public don’t appear convinced (Update: They’ve now been turned off). 

So, using DAIVID’s tech and methodology on 300 UK consumers, we measured the emotional and brand impact of two Andrex campaigns – “First Office Poo” and “A Little Love Goes A Long Way”, a recent cutesy campaign that follows the traditional puppy-powered adorableness the brand is well known for. This included measuring their facial expressions and then asking them how they felt after watching. We also looked at the impact the ad had on various brand metrics.

What we found was the “First Office Poo” only managed higher-than-average scores in 6 of the 26 positive emotions we tested. Amusement was the strongest positive emotion, with only 16.7% finding the ad actually funny. Although twice the UK average, an ad designed to be funny only making a sixth of its audience laugh is underwhelming.

As we know, despite a huge focus on advertisers being funny right now, humour is a tough nut to crack and brands always run the risk of alienating their audience if their jokes don’t land.

The ad was also twice as likely to make people feel surprised than the average UK ad. Certainly, after becoming accustomed to the usual ads for toilet paper featuring pristine white bathrooms, this is certainly something that would stand out from the usual fare.

But what would it be remembered for? Negative emotions were certainly more dominant, with the ad 4X more likely to leave viewers feeling embarrassed and awkward after watching than the average UK ad. Feelings of confusion and disgust were also way above the average, at 246% and 215% respectively. 

When you compare it to “A Little Love” you see how much of a departure the ad is. While awkwardness, embarrassment, amusement and confusion were the top emotions for “First Office Poo”, “A Little Love” generated intense feelings of warmth (3x higher than UK average), calmness (nearly 4x) and adoration (3x). 

Such a change in direction was certainly memorable, with brand recall for “First Office Poo” 8% higher than the UK average. Although, still slightly below “A Little Love”, which managed a 15% uplift.

But what’s interesting is that it didn’t necessarily translate into action. Viewers were much less likely to share the ad, search for the brand or recommend the brand after watching, while purchase intent was on a par with the UK average. 

Similarly, after watching “A Little Love” viewers were also less likely to search/ recommend the brand or share the ad (although at slightly higher levels than “Office Poo”), but purchase intent was 25% higher than the UK norm. It meant “Office Poo” managed an overall effectiveness (CES) score of 6.2 out of 10, while ”A Little Love” fared a better at 6.7.


All in all, while Andrex rightfully has been praised for trying something different and purposeful, the campaign highlights some of the pitfalls of using humour, especially when paired with negative emotions. To avoid the risk of all your hard work going down the pan, you always need a backup emotion in case the joke fails to land. 

In the case of “First Office Poo”, those were predominantly feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, confusion and disgust – the same reasons I’m guessing half of UK workers refuse to use the company loo.

Departing from your tried and tested emotions can pay huge dividends, as this is the path to create distinctive content. BUT brands have to be careful which emotions they evoke. If a brand evokes negative emotions, and leaves the viewer feeling negative at the end of the ad, those emotions can be attached to the brand. 

The best approach for brands is to investigate the positive emotions that are under-used in its category. By moving into this positive emotional space, brands can create ads that are distinctive and memorable in a good way. Otherwise, like rotting Whoppers, they can leave a bad taste in the mouth.