Getting the Joke to Land: When Humor Goes Awry in Digital Marketing

Digital marketers tend to have a sort of love-hate relationship with humor. A little humor is necessary to any marketing campaign; people simply respond better to something that makes them laugh. That’s why State Farm had Jake wearing khakis and why Old Spice had I’m on a horse. But a sense of humor is highly subjective and it can quickly go the wrong way. Marketers who misinterpret their audience’s sense of humor often find themselves on the defensive, running damage control. Sometimes a brand never truly recovers.

The 3 Rules of Marketing-Friendly Humor

  • Always know your audience and demographics.
  • Stay on message and on brand.
  • When straddling a fence, keep a foot on the safer side.

pepsi voodooPepsi: The Voodoo Doll Incident

You can almost see what they were going for. People get excited about sports. They hate the opposing team. So why not post a bunch of pictures of a voodoo doll being beaten up and murdered? It almost seems like some ad executive, somewhere, didn’t quite understand why people enjoy sports. Maybe they didn’t understand that sports rivalries are – with some rare and notable exceptions – for the most part friendly. Or maybe they thought it was actually high praise; “Look, this player is so good that he should be killed.” The Voodoo Doll Campaign came across as brutal, mean-spirited and dark rather than humorous; there was no joke there except, “Hey, isn’t it funny that we want some terrible things to happen to this guy?”

hitman absHitman the… Cyber Bully?

Hitman is a popular video game franchise published by Square Enix. As a promotion for a recent title, the company launched a Facebook game called “Hire Hitman,” allowing users to ‘assassinate’ their friends. All in good fun, right? The problem was the game’s cruel sense of humor. Assassinations were sent with insults – such as “awful make-up” or “big ears” — which inevitably led to accusations of cyberbullying. They completely missed the mark with their audience; weirdly, few people actually wanted to insult and virtually kill their friends. The company later apologized, stating that it was “wide of the mark.” Of course, knowing the game industry, it’s likely that the app was simply outsourced to a third-party developer and never double-checked — which is yet another point of caution.

mac“I’m a Mac” … “And I’m a PC”

Absolutely everyone knows these commercials — so, at very least, they were memorable. Meant to be a satirical look at the different features and aesthetics of mac computers and PCs, it ultimately backfired. Why? In general, people tend to cheer for the underdog. The Mac vs PC commercials featured a casually dressed young man (the Mac) who repeatedly foiled the older gentleman in a business suit (the PC). No one really enjoys seeing competitors dig at each other; it’s like seeing mommy and daddy fight. And Mac also misidentified its audience; many Mac users found themselves identifying more with the PC side of things than the cool-looking Mac.

The Most Inoffensive Types of Marketing Humor

There are two types of humor that almost always win out: self-deprecating humor and absurdity. Consider all of the most popular, humorous advertising campaigns, such as the Geico Gecko. Most people do enjoy laughing at someone — but they don’t want to feel like a bully, they want to be both laughing at and laughing with at the same time. Absurdity, silliness and exaggeration is inoffensive because it’s so disassociated with reality that there is nothing that can be seen as untoward. Still, silliness can become problematic if it does hit too close to home or comes off too mean-spirited, as seen with Pepsi’s voodoo doll campaign.

damageDamage Control: Recovering Gracefully

Sometimes everything just goes wrong. You could catch the attention of the wrong person. Your joke could have implications that you never anticipated. Damage control isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s all about how you handle it. If you handle damage control gracefully, you may even be able to improve the standing of your brand when all is said and done. But if you handle it improperly, you could do irreparable harm.

  • Own it. Apologize and explain — but don’t make excuses and don’t snark.
  • Be proactive. React quickly and take direct action against any wronged parties.
  • Take it seriously. Don’t try to spin outrage into another joke; it can be misinterpreted.

An intuitive understanding of your audience is necessary to craft memorable, humorous copy without taking it a step too far. Marketers need to straddle the line between clichéd, forgettable jokes and offensive or obscure jokes, while still staying on message and furthering their company’s brand. Social media and other real-time communication portals have made it very easy for a marketer to stick their virtual foot in their mouth – but, by the same token, an audience is likely to forget issues of poor humor as long as the marketer handles it quickly and in the appropriate way.