Ask any advertiser, and they’ll tell you; the best ads are the ones you remember. Ads have evolved to be more relatable, more personal, and more intrusive because they have to! The average American is exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 of them each day! That’s more than five times the number of ads an average person saw in the 1970s.

This massive increase in ad messages isn’t funny for consumers, but humor IS making it bearable.

Humor in advertising provides a break from the expected.  While all ads seek to inform, persuade and connect with customers, humor cuts through the overload of repetitive marketing messages, tricking our tired brains into pausing for a moment of mirth. If the ad lives in your brain rent-free or goes viral, so much the better.

A Short History of Funny Ads

As the world industrialized and the number and type of marketed items expanded, the old ways of informing the public began to falter. Advertising humor grew from the need to stand out by combining product information with entertainment.

In 1759, Samuel Johnson wrote, “Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is, therefore, become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic.” And so, the eighteenth-century “attention economy” catalyzed two new professions: copywriting and art direction.

An early exemplar of copywriting humor, George Packwood advertised his shaving equipment in the 1790s, with a relentless flood of “riddles, proverbs, fables, slogans, jokes, jingles, anecdotes, facts, aphorisms, puns, poems, songs, nursery rhymes, parodies, pastiches, stories, dialogs, definitions, conundrums, letters and metaphors.”

One of commerce’s earliest art-directed jokes, appeared in 1820, when Warren’s Shoe Blacking (which once employed a 12-year-old Charles Dickens) illustrated its product’s brilliance with a cat hissing at its reflection in a polished boot.

A century and a half later, the father of advertising, David Ogilvy, set up his own agency and echoed the tactics of early humorists. Ogilvy claimed that the best copy he ever wrote was a 1957 ad he penned for Rolls-Royce with the headline, “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” The ad continued with 719 words of copy and a numbered list of product features.

Ogilvy’s work represents a shift to advertising that appeals to emotions, creating ads that plucked at sex, fear, love – and our sense of humor.

Does Humor Sell?

Over time, an unspoken deal has been struck: Consumers will tolerate companies interrupting their podcasts, TV programs, or Instagram scrolls if, once in a while, the message makes them smile. But the question remains, do funny ads sell more than others?

Many studies have been conducted on the subject of humor in advertising, taking a wide variety of approaches to the subject. Despite numerous attempts from academia and the scientific community, no one can prove conclusively that humor really sells more products or services, and no one seems able to fully explain how humor works or even why we enjoy it so much. There is evidence that humor has a positive effect on brands when executed well, however.

A 1984 study by the Association for Consumer Research indicates that humor can improve audience comprehension and recall. In “Psychology for Marketers” the argument is made that because we “buy from people we like,” brands should use the positive associations of shared humor to associate the brand with positive feelings in the consumer.

As marketers, we may not need scientific proof because we already have results. The “Got Milk?” campaign, for example, is credited with an increase in milk consumption in California. But was it humor that caused the increase or a rise in awareness caused by all the ads? No one really knows, and ad executives would tell you that they don’t care how it works – it just does.

Humor in 2023

We know that funny ads can go “viral,” and be reposted, repeated, celebrated in the media, and even adopted into the fabric of society and culture. Anyone remember “Where’s the beef” from the 80’s or “Whazzzuuuuuuppp?” from the 2000’s? 

We also know that humor is universal. It cuts across language, barriers, and prejudices. It works when nothing else does. So, why doesn’t every brand use it? Humorous ads are scarce because they require two scarce things: creatives witty enough to create the joke, and clients brave enough to say yes.

Today we find humor in the extremes – in ads for mega-brands that can survive a joke if it flops, and in emerging brands willing to accept risk for attention, like Select Cannabis. The American brand recently posted its faux billboards to Instagram, with the caption, “billboards we would make if laws weren’t a thing.”

The Last Word on Humorous Ads

To our clients, we offer this reflection: Whether or not you employ humor in your ads or content, it’s important to nurture a sense of humor about your marketing, allowing that things happen beyond your control, brands evolve, and lighthearted moments can be found in nearly every business situation.