Do we need more humour in advertising?

In a conversation with Ogilvy Group UK vice chairman Rory Sutherland at Ad Week Europe today, comedian Jimmy Carr said British advertising was in danger of becoming boring, with clients and creatives too worried about offending audiences.

Image via O&M Group UK on Twitter

In a conversation with Ogilvy Group UK vice chairman Rory Sutherland at Ad Week Europe today, comedian Jimmy Carr said British advertising was in danger of becoming boring, with clients and creatives too worried about offending audiences.

Carr worked in advertising and marketing before becoming a comedian and co-authored a book on comedy and humour with copywriter Lucy Greeves in 2006. In an entertaining conversation with Sutherland, he said that despite Britain’s rich comedic heritage (in film, TV and stand up as well as advertising), there are “very few funny ads being made” today.

Both Sutherland and Carr agreed this was largely due to a fear of offending left or right wing audiences – from Guardian to Daily Mail readers – but Carr said the industry should worry less about causing a little controversy.

Criticising those who claim to be offended on behalf of others (which he dismissed as “bullshit” and “patronising”), Carr said it was OK to offend people sometimes. “The Daily Mail is f*cking brilliant at being outraged…but being offended [by something] isn’t that bad. It’s just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t like it’, he said.

“There is no universal comedy audience – there’s an audience for Frankie Boyle’s humour, or for Mrs Brown’s boys – they both make people laugh,” he added. Likening people’s sense of humour to their sexuality, he said that people have no choice over what makes them laugh: “If you tell a very edgy joke, people will laugh and then put their hand up to their mouth. The laughter is a reflex, then your brain kicks in and says, ‘what the f*ck are you doing?'”

Asked by Sutherland whether this meant he adopted an anything goes approach to humour, Carr said “you either believe in free speech or you don’t” and said it was best to let audiences decide what is funny.

“Advertising suffers from too much analysis – too many people saying ‘they wont get that’…but audiences can decide what’s funny and what isn’t. If you go too far [at a gig] you’ll get silence, but if you get it right, they will laugh,” he said.

As Sutherland pointed out, this is a huge risk to take in advertising, as just one controversial comment or tweet can have disastrous and lasting consequences for agencies, individuals or clients (Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, provides some terrifying examples of people whose careers and lives have been ruined after ill-judged posts on social media). “More or less anything interesting you have to say will offend someone. Everyone’s scared of it..If you tweet something controversial, you’ll see a lot more favourites than retweets,” he said.

Carr conceded that as a comedian, he has a lot more freedom to push the boundaries of humour – “I could get away with something funny on Twitter that you couldn’t [get away with] because I’m a comedian. I could make a joke about a bomb at an airport, and it’d be fine, but you’d probably go to jail,” he said – but added that humour can be an important tool in dissipating conflict, building relationships and giving brands a bit of personality. Citing the phrase “a joke is the shortest distance between two people”, he said “it makes the world a friendlier place…the intent of all jokes is the same…’I want you to like me’.”

Speaking about the tone of voice adopted by brands like Apple, Carr said he found it odd that there isn’t more humour in global branding. “It’s all very anodyne, theres no personality,” he said. He also questioned why there isn’t more humour in ads for mobile companies, many of which instead opt to target ‘yout culture’ instead, and why there are considerably less ads featuring comedians, or ‘uniquely British humour’ than there used to be. “I’m not touting for work, but I’m always surprised agencies don’t bring in comedians to write lines,” he added.

For ads that are made with the intent of being shown over a long period of time, Carr admitted that many agencies were understandably reluctant to rely on one-liners, fearing that audiences will quickly tire of them once the element of surprise is removed, but said this didn’t have to be the case. Citing an example of P&O’s recent spots starring Rob Brydon, he said if done right, they could continue to be enjoyable for audiences even when they know what is coming.

Sutherland agreed with several of Carr’s points, adding that he felt there was little wit in press ads today, and that he felt the industry is becoming too preoccupied with being “earnest and worthy”.

Of course, as a comedian known for making dark and often controversial jokes, Carr enjoys a great deal more comedic license than any brand or agency, but he made some thought-provoking points about the industry and a growing culture of fear when it comes to using humour.

Jokes aren’t always appropriate, and Carr wasn’t advocating stoking controversy for no good reason, but instead warning that by trying to please everyone all of the time, we might risk losing the sense of humour that Britain has long prided itself on – and has become known for around the world.

“People get British humour,” he said, adding that: “[In Britain], saying someone can’t take a joke is pretty much the worst thing you can say about them.”

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