LBB's Laura Swinton speaks to a range of adland humour merchants to explore the validity of laughter as (metaphorical) medicine for brands right now
“It's never been clearer that the internet's in a different time zone to traditional media. The content that currently dominates my phone is worlds away from all the earnest, reassuring stuff that dominates TV,” reflects Harry Guild, a data strategist at BBH. “But hopefully it'll get there in a few more weeks.”
Depending on where you look, media during past couple of months has been chaotically funny or painfully sincere. Locked inside, people have flocked to TikTok to unleash an avalanche of silliness, WhatsApp groups are an outbreak of memes and on TV and streaming comedians have rallied round to create remote versions of shows like SNL and Parks and Recreation.
Lynsey Atkin is ECD at 4Creative, the inhouse agency for UK broadcaster Channel 4, she says that both new comedy and old is attracting housebound-viewers. Indeed, Ipsos Mori found that viewing for comedy shows was up 40% during the first three weeks of lockdown.
“Comedy on 4 is definitely big at the moment. The new series of Friday Night Dinner got the biggest audience All4 has ever had for a comedy episode, and loads of people are getting into (or back into) classics like Shameless and The Inbetweeners,” she says. “Personally I’m re-watching a lot of Black Books if only because Bernard Black’s holy trinity of drinking, smoking and reading has never felt like a more aspirational way of getting through the day.”
In brand land, however, we’ve seen a steady stream of wholesome shots of lockdown life, sincere exhortations to stay inside, and heartfelt thanks. “In the US people are starting to notice that all the ads during lockdown are all the same, and I’m sure we are too,” comments Matt Waller, creative director at Recipe, referring to the much-shared supercut of hand-wringing Covid ads that’s been doing the rounds on social media.
As people grappled with the uncertainty of the coronavirus and confronted its serious implications, it makes sense that the initial wave of responsive brand work reflected that. Plus there’s been an obvious role for some brands to play, amplifying safety messages about staying at home. But as fatigue sets in, people are seeking out both catharsis and distraction.
“There seems to be an exact correlation with the number of dark news stories filling the papers with the exact opposite of light and funny lockdown jokes in my newsfeed and chats,” says Matt Waller. “The jokes and laughs are already out there. Gallows humour has always been a staple diet of doctors and nurses. Perhaps it’s a way to cope, an outlet for some emotion, any emotion, to escape.”
“If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry,” is a well-worn phrase for a reason. In the darkest of times, comedy is how we cope, sniggering despite ourselves becomes a salve. ‘Comedy’ as a genre – like its estranged cousin ‘Horror’ – are perfect distractions and defence-mechanisms for our brains fatigued by an endless and almost unimaginable news cycle,” agrees Lynsey.
Rosey – a.k.a. Adam Rosenblatt – a director with RadicalMedia is feeling the need for a good laugh on a personal and a professional level. “While some are flowering in the age of quarantine creativity - I did plant a tomato in the ground yesterday - I think a whole lot more of us are going a little batshit crazy at times. I know I am. So if some clever, dry, hard hitting funny came along dealing with that very subject… it could be just what the doctor ordered because a good laugh (at ourselves) is always what the doctor ordered,” he says. “And on a completely selfish level, I need a job.”
Everyone’s a Critic – Getting it Right
But while the logic of turning to comedy to get us through the bleakness of a global pandemic makes sense, for brands the challenge is to hit the right tone and to aim their humour in the right direction.
“Brands should first and most important not mock about the serious and sad situation that the weak, sick and poor have to face – and surely death is something we should not laugh about in times like these,” says Matthias Harbeck, managing partner at Serviceplan Campaign, who thinks that the brands should steer clear of the most morbid reaches of Covid comedy. “But besides that, I think there is always a point of view on almost everything that can make you laugh. And humour is a great way to show a deep understanding for people’s needs. Sometimes it is better not to join in the usual pathetic chorus of brands who want to sound important but to give people a more light-hearted moment.”
“I think it depends on the focus of the humour,” says Fran Luckin, who is chief creative officer at Grey South Africa. “Shared humour - laughing together about not wearing pants, or trying to do Zoom calls with kids, or eating your own body weight in lockdown snacks - can do a lot to alleviate the loneliness and anxiety of this time. This pandemic has the potential to create enormous anxiety and paranoia - it's very easy, for example, to see every other person on the planet as a threat to your own health. More than ever we need the empathy that laughing together brings. And maybe we also need a shared enemy. Maybe it's time to start making fun of the virus itself, to help us conquer our fear.”
Indeed, that ‘common enemy’ means that comedy has the potential to be a real unifier. And while stand up nerds might pooh-pooh observational humour, lockdown has unlocked a rich new seam of quirks and oddities to mine of laughs. “We're all in a mass, shared experience which is the perfect environment for comedy,” says Harry. “Michael McIntyre [a high profile UK stadium comic] probably has enough whimsical lockdown observations to fill a new tour. So long as you're laughing at the absurdity of our new everyday experience, rather than lessening the tragedy of the virus, then I think comedy is a really rich area to play in.”
Getting comedy right isn’t just about deftly finding the line between incisive, daring with and bad taste. Even the professionals are finding working remotely tricky. With no responsive audiences to buoy things along, panel shows that have attempted a remote, Zoom-ish set up have fallen flat. And when it comes to scripted comedy, physicality and subtleties of non-verbal communication are important tools – and it’s hard to replicate that back-and-forth when your cast are trying to bounce off each other via a wobbly broadband connection.
On the other hand, really sharp, crafted comedy writing can really elevate work when the usual bells and whistles of production are not available. When we think back to our favourite classic comedies, we overlook the shaky sets. Indeed, when German supermarket Penny put out their ode to couch potatoes, the ad’s writing cut through – it’s not immediately obvious that the visuals have been stitched together from carefully selected stock footage.
And, of course, there’s one comedy cliché that we can’t ignore. The secret of comedy is, so they say, timing. “The neurotic Jewish mother in my head is screaming ‘comedy? At a time like this? You think this is funny!? ARE YOU INSANE!!!’…well, yes, a little Mom, but I digress…,” jokes Rosey. “My neurotic Jewish mother, while a huge pain in my ass, has a point. People are feeling isolated and afraid. I can imagine a slew of upcoming work will follow the beautiful and safe route of a “we are all united” type of messaging for a little while. We’ll shed some tears, hold some hands, feel better…And while I’m sure there will be some really beautiful and heartfelt work made, this is advertising we’re talking about, so it will be repeated and repeated until eventually it will become a little, well...expected.
“Then a bold client will step up to the plate and take the piss out of it all. And sell a shitload.”
Warm Up Acts – the Brands Already Cracking Jokes
Subverting stereotype, Germany has been one of the markets where brands have embraced the comedy of Covid-19. Pharmacy chain Rossman has released a spot comparing responsible, socially-distanced queueing with waiting in line for a Berlin nightclub. And before that, for the aforementioned supermarket brand Penny, Serviceplan followed up their heartfelt spots thanking employees and celebrating the heroic efforts of parents attempting to educate kids at home with the first explicitly Covid-19-related ad that genuinely made us chuckle.
As Matthias explains, “Humour felt especially right for us, because people started to get depressed in that lockdown at home. We felt that that there was a common need not so much for empathy and compassion anymore, but for some uplifting moments of fun and laughter. And the deeper insight of our film spoke directly to the heart of many people: All of a sudden being a ‘Couch Potato’ was not something to be laughed at anymore, but a characteristic of heroes. People could feel good about something they used to be ashamed of. Of course we played all this with a certain kind of self-mockery.”
Christoph Everke, who is creative managing director at Serviceplan agrees. “It felt right and it felt even better since we were the first to put it in a humorous way – at least in Germany.”
Comedy isn’t right for every brand – and as with every piece of Covid-19 communications, marketers and agencies need to seriously ask themselves ‘why’. Does it make sense for us to talk about coronavirus, let alone laugh about it. One brand that’s earned that right is South African cider brand Savanna. Together with their agency Grey, they’ve launched an online comedy club, hosting some of the hottest acts in the country. And, having been a long-term supporter of the local scene, it felt right to both support comedians at a time when their revenue from the circuit has dried up as well as giving people a chance to have a proper laugh in their living rooms.
“Savanna's support of the South African comedy scene goes right back to the birth of the brand, when it launched with the positioning line "It's dry, but you can drink it." So there was a natural fit for this crisp, dry cider brand to offer an unapologetically witty perspective on South African life, and to support local comedians in doing the same,” says Fran at Grey. Her team at the agency came up with the idea proactively. “When lockdown hit and it became clear that not only do people need some comic relief, but comedians also need a new stage since they can't perform in bars any more, it felt like a natural space for the brand to step into. “
“South Africa has a rich comedy scene with some very diverse and unique voices,” says Fran. “Comedy in South Africa is extremely frank and robust and doesn't shy away from racial and class identity issues. It's simply not possible to do that if you live in South Africa. We're not politically correct at all.”
In the UK, too, Channel 4 has been embracing humour in its communications. There have been quirky stings of their top talent doing chores at home and a spectacularly silly campaign packed with arse-cracks and butt cheeks, celebrating the heroism of staying at home and sitting on one’s behind.
“Channel 4 is a real gift of a brand, its tone has been built over years of risky and original programming and advertising. So for us to make something like BUTTS – it’s not coming out of nowhere, it makes complete sense for Channel 4. Conversely, it would be weird for us to do something very stoic or take an overly worthy tone right now,” says Lynsey. “When we reviewed the script, the tone just felt right from the start, it’s a gut thing. But we knew there were ways to make sure our intention came across more fully – getting Matt Berry to provide the voice over, for example. That bombast and otherness creates a sense of ridiculousness, it makes people feel in on the joke, rather than the er, butt of it.”
Carry on Laughing – Comedy Beyond Coronavirus
Exploring comedy and Covid-19, one can’t shake the feeling that the industry has been pretty light on the laughs for a good few years. Between the pincers of cancel culture and risk-averse clients, the subjectivity of humour had fallen out of favour.
“The advertising industry has become more and more intolerant of subjectivity. It wants to invest in reliable 7/10s, not work that could be a 10 to some people and a 5 to others,” says Harry. He points out that comedians can reduce one audience to tears of laughter and bomb the very next night – and that the typical focus group set up isn’t the most conducive to mirth. “So when you present a funny ad to a distracted focus group in Milton Keynes on a grey Tuesday morning, success is really up the gods. In contrast, everyone knows that Brand X donating £10m to a puppy orphanage is an objectively good thing to do. And so an advert about that will fly through pre-testing. The whole pre-testing culture kills comedy. And I think that's a massive loss.”
As Harry points out, ‘social good’ might be seen as an easier win – and in recent years we’ve seen many brands conflate purpose with piety. Brands have been keen to embrace topics like climate change and LGBT rights – themes which don’t lend themselves to comedy, at least, the sort of mass consumption comedy we get outside of the club circuit. “It seems almost impossible to imagine a brand mocking climate change,” says Christoph. “So the prevalent themes were not very funny at all. I would hope we will find topics, perspectives and ways to entertain again and put smiles on people’s faces and courageous advertisers and creatives to tell these stories.”
Lynsey also reckons that in the push for regional and global campaigns, often in the name of efficiency, means that the texture and nuance that comedy thrives on can be lost in the mix.
“Comedy relies on cultural cues. You first have to understand something before a joke about it makes sense, so a line that lands a laugh in the UK might make zero sense in Bulgaria. Can you imagine the Walls (Dog in a Box) ‘Garage’ ad working anywhere but Britain? The Americans would be lost. What I’m saying is the pan-European and global nature of advertising isn’t a breeding ground for nuanced comedy. I’m not bashing globalisation wholesale – there are some great multi-market ads, but as glorious as, say, a lot of Apple ads are, they’re not funny, are they?”
But looking forward, the public’s appetite for comedy is unlikely to drop. On the Covid-19 front, uncertainty continues. While some countries are still fully in lockdown mode, other countries have tentatively lifted restrictions – though these could be reinstated. And if and when a vaccine becomes available and things can be more fully opened up, there may be cause for a more upbeat approach to advertising.
Indeed, there is historical precedent for an upswing in comedy after a global shock. In early April, BBH Labs shared a graph on Twitter showing Hollywood produced a greater percentage of comedy movies following the Great Depression and World War 2.
“I remembered this old Bo McCready chart showing the fluctuations in film genre popularity over time (I think highlighting the current boom in documentaries) and thought it'd be interesting to see how tastes change following global traumas,” says Harry, who dug out the graph.
“By the way, in Germany we had a similar phenomenon as in Hollywood after the Great Depression. During and after Word War II there was a significant rise of comedy films and light-hearted entertainment,” chips in Christoph at Serviceplan.
In the age of TikTok, the timing gap between tragedy and comedy has shrunk as people can easily bash together their own funny skits. So if we do see a comedy spike akin to those that followed major 20th century catastrophes, well, we’re probably experiencing it already.
“We don’t have to wait until the end of all this to see a spike in people seeking out stuff that makes them laugh – it’s already happening,” says Lynsey. “We know it is because people are making it themselves. The evidence is all over Twitter, from those faking air travel with a washing machine door to the array of BBC-news-theme raves, the comedian in many of us is rife. My guess is they were doing this in 1942 as well, they just didn’t have their mum sending it around as a meme.”
And, ultimately, if marketers can take this moment as an opportunity to reassess the role that their brands can play in the world, perhaps they will realise that entertainment is as important as purpose. “It’s all about being human and that’s what all brands should crave,” says Matt at Recipe. “Maybe as an advertising industry, we can attempt to make people smile and if we’re very, very lucky, laugh. Maybe that will be ‘doing our bit’.”