In today's economic climate, trying to be funny can be a risky proposition.
By Yash Egami
Before AIG, Bernie Madoff and double-digit unemployment, it seemed like no client was too serious or off limits for a funny and entertaining spot. Whether it was a financial company like Citibank, insurance company like GEICO or Afflac, or a job site like Careerbuilder.com
, television viewers couldn't get enough of the over-the-top antics while clients were laughing all the way to the bank.
But with a deepening recession and people coping with layoffs and bankruptcies, there hasn't been a whole lot to laugh about lately. Some clients, especially in the financial or auto sectors, have taken on a much more serious tone. But several agencies that have built their reputations on doing funny ads are not only pushing for more humor, they're even poking fun at the economy.
"People still want to laugh, even in the middle of things like this," says Jeff Goodby from Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. "I've been presented with instances in which people have made jokes about our current circumstance. I think there are certain ones you don't want to make such as losing jobs and so on, but I think there are jokes that you can make that are appropriate about how the economy's down and portfolios aren't worth as much as they were and money can't buy as much as it used to. I think it's OK to be humorous about things that are relevant."
Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, which is known for legendary funny spots such as "Aaron Burr" for California Milk Processors Board and the Budweiser Lizards, recently launched two very successful campaigns for Hyundai and Denny's that speak about the economy in completely different ways.
In the latest Hyundai TV campaign, the creatives at Goodby looked at one of the main reasons why people weren't buying cars and turned it around to make it a key selling point. The Hyundai Assurance program was launched, offering people the chance to return their cars if they lose their job.
"The spot was appropriately serious because it actually uses the phrase 'lose your income' and people worry about that," says Goodby. Since the commercials began airing several months ago, the automaker's sales have gone up 14 percent while most others have decreased by as much as 40 percent.
But even with a mostly serious campaign like Hyundai, there's still room for humor. In one spot announcing the Hyundai Genesis as the Car of the Year-winner at the Detroit Auto Show, we see various CEOs at other automakers yelling in meetings and boardrooms in disgust.
With another one of Goodby's clients, Denny's, which asked for a Super Bowl spot that promoted its free breakfast campaign, the agency decided to go with a laugh-out-loud approach while alluding to the economy. The ad shows sinister-looking mafia-types discussing business while a waitress sprays whipped cream on their pancakes. Only at the end do we see the announcement that the chain will be offering a free breakfast promotion, which was intended to be a gesture of goodwill for struggling families as well as a brand-building exercise for the restaurant chain.
Says Goodby: "I think it spoke to the times in its own way by basically saying in so many words that getting a free breakfast is not a bad thing no matter what the economy's doing. And it was successful because it was funny. I don't think it was funny because we were worried about people somehow thinking we were too serious—we just made it funny because it was appropriate to the product attributes."
As a result of the spot and a sign of the times, Denny's wound up giving away 2 million free breakfasts across the nation on the day of the promotion.
For Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, humor continues throughout their work. The agency recently launched an upbeat and comical campaign for Quaker Oats featuring people on jet packs, a funny campaign for Cheetos and an inspirational one for the NBA based on famous moments in sports. While the agency has gained a reputation for being funny, when it first opened its doors, creating humorous ads happened more out of necessity than comedy for comedy's sake.
"Our first time in the business, we weren't a very big agency with big budgets, we were dealing with clients who had nothing," explains Goodby. "So a lot of the first campaigns that we did for the San Francisco Examiner and so on were funny because that was the best way to attract attention with a small budget. It got people to talk about the work."
Goodby and others are feeling the strain right now from clients with smaller budgets who are not only focused on the bottom line but are simply trying to stay afloat. While many briefs have been about discounts and promotions, he still sees a lot of opportunity to incorporate big ideas while delivering the message.
"There are clients that are a bit more afraid of taking risks—it's not a good time to gamble on ad propositions," says Goodby. "At the same time, it's a really good time to advertise because there's less clutter. People are sitting around watching TV and playing on the Internet rather than going out like they used to when they had more money to spend. People are at home, and home is a good place to talk to people."
Other agencies around the country that are known for humor seem to agree. Sal DeVito, a partner at New York-based DeVito/Verdi, who created legendary funny ads for clients like Daffy's and National Thoroughbred Racing, feels that although humor might not be appropriate with certain topics, creatives shouldn't become overly cautious.
"What's happening right now is rough and we're going to get through it, but I don't think it really matters for creatives at all unless you have a financial client," says DeVito. "If that were the case, you'd have to be more careful. But after watching the news every night and hearing all that stuff, I think everyone could use a good laugh now and then no matter how it comes at you, whether it's a commercial or not. Laugh as hard as you can."
The agency has been rolling out recent funny campaigns for clients such as Meijer, Legal Seafoods and the Village Inn. The latter is indicative of their style, with edgy and dark humor in the unexpectedly funny spot featuring a talking breakfast platter getting its eye poked out. The client didn't want to spend a lot of money, so according to DeVito, it was "quick, down and dirty, cheap, and we even had to use stock footage." But the spot worked and got people buzzing about the restaurant chain.
"It was exciting when [the creative team] showed it to me, I liked it, it was bought right away," he recalls. "We talked about how it should be a really nice slice of toast and you've gotta really stick it in that eye. We did one more or two more versions, but I said they've gotta buy this one, and the client did."
Though the agency is known for taking risks, sometimes its brand of humor generates as much controversy as success.
"We get a lot of complaints, and sometimes you don't even expect to get complaints because we didn't do anything wrong," says DeVito. "Clients get a little nervous at times, but that doesn't mean we should hold back. Sometimes they buy the second choice, and that's OK."
Another famously funny creative director, Gerry Graf, also believes that now is the time for clients to take risks. Graf, who has a long history of creating offbeat campaigns for clients like Mars Snackfoods, FedEx and E*Trade, believes that humor is sometimes the answer for a struggling business.
"I've always thought humor is appropriate for anything," says Graf. "My clients don't feel that way often, but I do. I always go back to my FedEx example. If you ask a CEO who's the most reliable name in business, I'm sure FedEx would come up, and they've built that reputation on funny ads."
Saatchi and Graf made headlines during this year's Super Bowl with their hilariously absurd one-second ad for Miller High Life. A teaser campaign that led up to it asked, "Who's got 3 million bucks?" referring to the high cost of a 30-second spot and the down economy.
While the spot pokes fun at other brands that are willing to spend that kind of money on the big game, it was also a brilliant move by the brand to generate free publicity. News agencies and publications buzzed about the novel concept and a website was launched that showed different versions.
Says Graf: "It came directly out of the positioning that Miller High Life is the unpretentious beer, the beer with common sense. It's always been a kind of blue-collar brand so we moved the strategy a little bit higher. And the Super Bowl this year at $3 million a spot is the biggest waste of money, and so it just seemed perfect for High Life."
Graf is no stranger to oddball humor, having cemented his reputation at his former agency, TBWAChiatDay, where he created award-winning campaigns for such brands as Skittles, Combos and Starburst. His work with creative directors Scott Vitrone and Ian Reichenthal spawned a whole new generation of offbeat ads, particularly in the candy and packaged goods segment (some creatives have even dubbed it "The Skittles Effect").
At the time, they were simply looking to do something different with the Skittles brand and help it evolve rather than start a new trend.
"A lot of commercials are a big setup with a punchline at the end, and we always try to not have that structure and be funny throughout," says Graf. "And when we were working on Skittles, their brand equity is magic and the rainbow and a guy dancing on the edge of a pier with Skittles raining down on him. So we changed it from magic to weird stuff. We weren't necessarily being weird for weird's sake, we thought it was part of the Skittles magic."
Graf has taken his trademark humor over to Saatchi and unveiled new and funny campaigns like "The Doghouse" for JCPenney and some new work for General Mills. Though JCPenney decided to take a risk with the "Doghouse" website, the retailer's TV and print advertising has gone back to a more traditional look that features the clothes and price discounts more prominently.
But with some clients asking for price-oriented ads that are conservative in tone, Graf firmly believes that humor can be used in any situation when done correctly.
"My dad taught me that you can make a joke about anything, which is why I made fun of him when I gave his eulogy," laughs Graf. "He would have been proud of me.