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.

Quick Cheats for Quality Content

You need a continuous flow of quality content to compete. But, sometimes producing something fresh can feel like a chore. Are you pressed for time or coming up short on content marketing ideas? Try out these tips to shake out something new:

1. Update an old post.

renewChange is the only constant, no matter what industry you are in. Look at some of your old posts to see which ones contain out of date information. When you find one that is ready for an update, add new information. Explain how things have changed. This can be especially valuable if you’ve recommended things in the past that are no longer considered best practices or if you’ve referred to a service that no longer exists (Google Authorship, we still miss you). Then, repost as a new entry.

2. Do a round-up of posts from your industry.

round upSet up Google alerts for keywords that are relevant to your industry. You can set them up to arrive daily or weekly. Scan through and pick out the posts that you feel offer the best information for your prospects and make a top five or top ten list. Provide a brief summary, along with why you feel the post is worth reading. If you do this once a month, that’s subject matter for 12 posts a year that you have handled. When you link a colleague’s post, always let them know. Chances are good that they will either tweet about it or return the favor, bringing you more traffic.

3. Showcase a best-of of your own content.

showcaseThis should also be a regular feature on your site. Offer these posts, depending on how often you publish, either once a week or once a month. You can determine your best-of list based on highest traffic, most shares or most comments. Not only do you get new content, you get more love for the content that you already have.

4. Hire someone.

Yes, this still means work, but, it’ll be someone else doing it. People who run SMBs often have trouble letting go of the reins and delegating to others. If you can let go and let someone else handle just four blog posts a month, that adds up to a lot of time that you can dedicate to the core functions of your business.

Content creation is time-intensive. And, there are no short-cuts that can work every time. But, by putting these hacks into action every now and then, you can squeeze out more quality content and grow your business site.

Sidestepping the Worst Issues With Outsourced Content Marketing

Outsourcing doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Many companies successfully outsource their content marketing strategy to both save money and tap a large pool of specialized talent, but it does take a little work. If not properly managed, flaky workers, inconsistencies and missed deadlines can quickly sink even the most thoroughly planned content marketing campaign. But when managed successfully, outsourcing will give you access to content that is of a far greater quality than could otherwise be achieved.

Create a Complete, Concise Content Packet


  • Pay attention to form and content. Don’t take anything for granted. All writers are different and may be coming in with different assumptions.
  • Show, don’t tell. A good sample is worth its weight in gold. It’s far easier to provide one or more samples than try to express what you want in directions.
  • Be brief. The longer your instructions are, the less likely it is that someone is going to read through all of them. This is just an unfortunate truth.

management2 Work With a Dedicated Content Marketing Team

While it may be cheaper to upload your projects piecemeal and go with the lowest bidder each time, it’s not going to give you a cohesive content marketing strategy. Even if you find a single writer that you know you can work with in the future, you’re at their mercy; if they leave you, you need to go through the entire process again. After a certain point, the process becomes more costly than it’s worth. If you choose a single writer, choose one who is very well-established within your industry and will remain available to you. A small, dedicated team will give you more flexibility for larger scale projects.

communicateAlways Have a Content Manager

The role of a content manager is extremely important. A content manager should curate content, ensuring that all content is consistent and up to current quality standards. Content managers will often polish pieces, giving them a full editing pass, checking facts and adding relevant formatting and images. Without a single person ensuring the quality of the work, quality will quickly become erratic. If you’re working with a content marketing team, it’s likely they will already have a manager in charge. If not, it’s important to find someone who can continuously monitor the quality of your content.

communicate effectivelyCommunicate Effectively

  • Express deadlines and pay rates clearly from the beginning. It will expedite the process and ensure that you get what you want when you need it.
  • Provide specific feedback — even on work that is good but not great. Writers will look to this feedback to improve and will not be able to improve otherwise.
  • Be clear about scope. If you’re going to need the writer for future work, let them know. This will make it easier to secure them in the future.

stopWatch for the Red Flags

You know how they say “When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time”? It’s great advice for all types of relationships, including business relationships. Any hitches you encounter during a first job with a new writer or content marketing team is probably going to set the tone of your future relationship. Were they fast, courteous and accurate? You’ve probably struck gold. Were they slow, ineffective and off the mark? Unless your directions were very poor, this is likely to continue. Don’t feel as though you need to commit to something that just isn’t working; it will only frustrate you in the long run.

green grassAvoid “Grass is Greener” Syndrome

As you optimize your content strategy, it can be tempting to try out new content teams and new writers. Testing is a fantastic idea; you can bring in new perspectives and potentially get lower bids. Flipping from one writer to another at a rapid pace, however, is a bad idea. It doesn’t give your content strategy any time to settle nor does it give each writer time to acclimate, ultimately creating an incoherent jumble rather than a cohesive whole. Often, companies think that they can get work done better or cheaper and end up trying out a long sequence of writers… only to find that, at the end of the process, the original writer that they had is no longer available for their work.

Outsourcing effectively requires that you be very clear about your expectations and that you conscientiously manage the content that you bring in. The benefits to outsourcing are numerous: you have a wealth of talent to choose from, you have complete flexibility on a project-by-project basis and you pay only for the services that you need. But the drawbacks exist, too: you need to invest some time in finding dependable people. Outsourcing will only be as effective as your outsourced talent is, regardless of budget and content goals.