The Purpose of Humour
Purpose. Every brand on the planet is trying to find theirs to talk about.
It’s today’s - and maybe tomorrow’s - trending topic. Sustainability, accountability, equality and diversity: all words that now appear regularly on client briefs. Intimidating words that can guide us towards a certain approach to the creative: serious, informative, worthy. And in turn to forgettable, homogenised work.
Ask any consumers, creatives, clients, strategists to name their top three ads of all time, and there’ll be a ‘Skittles’, a ‘Specsavers’, a ‘Geico’, a ‘Gorilla’, a ‘John Smiths’ or a ‘John West’ in there somewhere. Humour has been telling our stories and selling our products for years. It forces a way into our collective memories like no other device.
But ‘funny’ is getting scarcer on our multiple screens. Maybe it’s due a comeback, even when our subject matter is more serious? Because humour can tell difficult truths and even bring purpose into sharper relief. It’s not just a tool to be trotted out in the safe space of FMCG spots. Instead of going for the heart strings and tear ducts, why not take aim at the funny bone?
Look hard enough and you’ll find a precedent. Advertising like the Rainforest Alliance’s ‘Follow the Frog’ laid the way for ‘Innocent’s Chain of Good’. ‘Viva La Vulva’ is a brilliant, more recent example: humour as Libresse’s new gateway into a potentially hazardous subject, a potent spot that will live long in the memory.
In 1997, The Co-Operative Bank (a brand with values, ethics and purpose) ran a cinema advert called ‘Wanker’ in support of disability rights. The script: a disabled guy in a pub garden with his mates, recounting the tale of getting caught eyeing up another man’s girlfriend in the same pub the night before. The offended man calling the disabled guy a ‘wanker’ as his chosen insult, instead of the playground names our disabled guy is more used to. Which actually makes our disabled hero’s day.
The end line was perfect: ‘See the person, not the disability'. It was a brave approach, executed brilliantly, purpose punctured with - and made enduringly memorable by - humour. One of my favourite ads of all time.
Maybe we all need a bit more ‘Wanker’ in our lives and on our screens.
Mark Elwood is executive creative director at MullenLowe Group UK