Is it OK to make marketing funny during a crisis?

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    Marketing Insights

  • Date:

    May 19, 2020

Is it OK to make marketing funny during a crisis?

Marketing Insights

Humor unites us as human beings. Whether it’s a nervous laugh or a hearty guffaw, we use humor to communicate good news or bad news or just to break the ice. After all, everyone loves a good laugh.

As the pandemic continues to upend daily life as we know it and overwhelm us with a constant stream of information, many have turned to humor or escapism to lighten the mood. Shared memes on social media. TikTok dances with our kids. Endless hours of HGTV makeover shows. It’s clear we all love — even crave — levity right now. But should we welcome the same kind of approach from brands or companies in their marketing?

There are still brands producing lighthearted marketing, and they’re doing so successfully.

Humor isn’t out altogether, but it is heavily scrutinized. While some companies have pulled funny campaigns altogether, others are leaning in. recently created a spot featuring their character Captain Obvious socially distancing from home with a bowl of popcorn. The company replaced its usual tagline — “Be there. Do that. Get Rewarded.” — with an important message for the public that had to be painful for a travel company to share — “Just Stay Home.”

Progressive Insurance, long known for its quirkiness, has continued to air funny ads including a spot for home insurance depicting new homeowners as clones of their parents. The decision to keep airing this spot during the pandemic relates to what Progressive CMO Jeff Charney refers to as the importance of finding a balance between a focus on customers, employees, agents and communities while also recognizing that people still crave some levity and entertainment. [1]

Meanwhile, GEICO, another insurance company with a sense of humor, is rerunning some of its best, most hilarious ads from years past.

Even small, local companies are cashing in on the humor card. Georgia brewery Wild Heaven Beer produced a small run of pandemic-themed brews including Fauci Spring, named for National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the social distance–themed brew, Don’t Stand So Close To Me.

These companies, while different, all have one thing in common: Humor is in their brand DNA. They are funny all the time, so when they use brand humor during a pandemic, it isn’t perceived as opportunistic. If you’ve never been funny before, now may not be the best time to test the waters.

If you decide to leverage humor, here are a few things to consider.

Think about testing the new creative and messaging before rolling it out.

Testing creative work before pulling the trigger on a new campaign has never been more important, particularly if your brand has not used humor or levity in the past. Early testing with an advisory panel gives you a chance to adjust the tone to resonate with your audience. People who are overwhelmed with media reports and stress will remember how advertising made them feel during this time, good or bad, making creative testing a necessity.

Be sure to strike the right tone.

A lighthearted tone provides a break from the continuous stream of bad news inundating people right now. Finding that tone may be a balance between empathetic and humorous, ensuring that sensitivity reigns and your brand is perceived as helpful. And, a tone that is moderately funny versus funny hilarity tends to be a good rule of thumb.

Keep in mind that people consider humor to be more appropriate when it is aimed at ourselves rather than others. [2]

The same is true for brands: When they make fun of themselves, the humor isn’t threatening or hurtful, and people find commonality in the feeling of laughing together.

Keep it social.

Social media is a platform of choice for infusing levity. Memes about Zoom, distance learning with kids, pandemic snacks and Netflix consumption levels provide a break from reality. Brands are increasing social presence and ad spend, because they know their audience is camped out there. While some are using the platforms to show empathy and build trust, others are connecting with moments of lightheartedness and humor.

The Planters brand recently introduced Baby Nut story time, leading with its new Baby Nut character (who took Mr. Peanut’s place following his untimely Super Bowl commercial demise). Wendy’s created a social scavenger hunt leading to $5,000 in gift codes. As digital consumption levels remain high, expect to see more brands taking a humorous plunge across multiple platforms.

For the first time in a hundred years, everyone on the planet is having a very shared, human experience. Hopefully, we are at a stage in this crisis where a little levity is appreciated, if not welcomed with open arms. Just be sure to move forward with lighthearted messages rooted in commonalities. After all, you want everyone to feel like they’re in on the joke.

[1] “Levity Defies Gravity: Using Humor in Crisis Situations” by Stephen M. Sultanoff, Ph.D.

[2] Farmers, Progressive Launch New Creative by Tanya Gazdik, April 14, 2020.

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