A BAFTA-winning comedy writer on how to make advertising that actually makes people laugh.
It’s pretty common that we’ll watch a film that clearly fits into the category of ‘comedy ads’, but doesn’t provoke even slightest tittle of a laugh. Somehow it’s become acceptable for advertising to be less funny than other forms of comedy.
We’ve been enjoying the current series of Revolting – BBC Two’s new satirical sketch series – and were excited to find out that one of the writers on the show, Joe Wade, is also the Co-Founder and Managing Director of the agency Don’t Panic London. They’ve made some very high profile work for Greenpeace, Save the Children and PETA in recent years.
We wanted to see what Joe, as a BAFTA-winning comedy writer thought of British comedy advertising’s low standards, so we called him for a chat.
The Beak Street Bugle: Why are comedy ads so rarely actually funny? How do they get signed off?
Joe Wade: The threshold is low. I think one reason is you are asking people who are not comedy writers to come up with comedy. That is a different skill in many ways. They’re sort of related but if you’re an advertising professional, I don’t know why you’re expected to be funny. That’s a slightly different thing.
So one thing we tend to do is have comedy writers from TV to help us on our ad work, to try and make things more genuinely funny.
The difference will be in terms of how that manifests itself in the process. Somebody who comes from a TV comedy background will tend to think ‘is this a funny set-up or scenario?’ and then somebody else might have to come along and go ‘where’s the brand?’ You can do it that way round. That will probably result in something funnier, whereas advertising professionals often start with ‘what can we do to make this deliver against brand objectives?’ then ‘can we make it funny?’
There were funnier ads in the past and it’s interesting to note things like the Smash Martians. I used to think in the old days you probably just used to write it on the back of a fag packet round the corner from the pitch, then you’d go in and they’d obviously say yes because they thought you were some kind of creative genius. But actually that wasn’t the case at all. That advert was meticulously researched and tested really well with housewives, who where the intended market at that point. So it wasn’t as wild as that at all.
That was by BMP, which is in a circuitous way now adam&eveDDB, who are known for their extremely emotional adverts and have never really attempted anything funny.
BSB: Why do you think emotional advertising is so much more popular than comedy?
JW: I think another potential trend is people want to create things that are shareable and they feel that highly emotive adverts that make you want to weep are the most shareable. And kind of forgetting online behaviour. Some of the biggest Facebook publishers are like The LAD Bible – I think in September last year they had about three billion views – and most of that is humour. So there’s definitely an appetite for it there.
In America the picture’s slightly different because with the Super Bowl everyone tries to do a funny ad. The two that did well [in 2016] – number one was the Doritos one with the ultrasound.
It’s not hilarious but it was at least a bit shocking. The other one that did well was the Mountain Dew one – Puppymonkeybaby.
Unruly wrote a white paper about it. 22% of felt less positively about Mountain Dew after watching that advert. So it went badly. But among its key audience – Millennial males – 58% of people felt really positive about it. And it was the 7th most shared ad at last year’s Super Bowl.
BSB: That requires some bravery from clients though, right?
JW: The thing about humour is you can’t be too bothered if it turns off a lot of people or a lot of people find it in bad taste. If you work out who your audience is and a more hard-hitting humorous approach would work, then you may have to risk offending older women, for instance.
There were a few ads that went really badly like that Volkswagen ad, where they had a [white Amercian man with a] really stereotypical Jamaican accent in it and it was called out as racist. A few have backfired and that’s a big fear for a lot of clients.
Another factor is the sheep-like mentality of the industry. Clients have seen John Lewis and they just say ‘do me a John Lewis.’ That’s why you’ve had so many emotional adverts.
I think there is possibly a real thing that is if you’re going for a global ad you’re on safer ground with emotions than with humour. Humour tends to be a bit more regional. A good example of a humorous ad that was done really well was the Mac V PC campaign. The reason that was good is they weren’t hugely funny, but it was a very simple format to replicate and in every country they did them with a regional sensibility using regional talent.
That was a good way to answer the problems of that regional element. I think you could do an effective global campaign and make it region specific.
Another factor as to why we’re in this position is with the awards in advertising, you tend to get awards for emotional rather than funny advertising. In our slightly rudimentary research, last year in Cannes 13 Lions were given to funny ads and 44 to more emotional ads. I think agencies are aware of that. And we’ve tended to do much better out of the emotional adverts than we have with anything funny.
BSB: How are Don’t Panic set up to do things differently?
JW: As an agency we tend not to do ads as such. We do often ask ourselves ‘how is this different from an advert?’ If you want to create work that’s storytelling [that’s designed to go] viral, you might get a better story arc out of it if you were looking to writers who weren’t only advertising copywriters. And the same thing would apply to drama as well.
That’s not necessarily new. There has been a bit of fluidity between those who have written commissioned content versus adverts, or famously people like novelists who have written for Hollywood.
I think we’re lucky because as an agency we started making viral videos for ourselves and then began to do commercial work. So the mindset in the agency is like ‘is this shareable?’ first, then we work back from there. I think that’s a big help.
BSB: Revolting feels a lot like its stunt-based predecessor, The Revolution Will be Televised. Is it essentially just a rebrand or do you see it as distinct?
JW: It started off being a lot more scripted and then people wanted us to do the stunt-y stuff as well, so we ended up bringing more of that into it. In some of the sketches, I think the ones that we are most keen on are the ones that are scripted and then it goes into stunts. I really like the tax office one [the VR Tax Simulator sketch in Episode 1], where there’s an amusing idea behind the scripted segment and then it ends up with a minor stunt on Eric Schmidt.
The big difference from Revolution is there are the scripted bits. We like to work more on how those two things fit together. It’s a really nice way of doing things.
BSB: How different is that from writing for a commercial client?
JW: For us, the difference is less than it would be for a traditional agency because we came from doing that sort of stunts and then we commercialised it. We’ve developed that a long way from stunts by doing proper narrative things commercially.
We do a lot of cause-related work for charities. So given that the comedy in Revolting is satirising stuff but also focusing on issues, for us to go from that to working with charities is not much of a stretch.
I think what we’re trying to do with the cause-related stuff is not preach to the converted all the time. If you take a more traditional approach to these issues you would have a sad child staring at the camera sort of thing and hope that people will be touched enough to hand some money over.
We don’t really do that kind of thing. We have an awareness of what wouldn’t interest people and trying to approach it from a different angle. I guess the comedy angle helps with that.
What we’re trying to do with Revolting is present issues that you may read about in the Guardian but in a different kind of way so a broader audience may be interested in them.
As an agency one of our priorities is to work with more brands and another priority is to do more funny work. I think we do need to work with more brands to make that a reality because we can’t pitch funny ideas to a lot of our charity clients. Child abuse isn’t funny, and neither is people suffering in Syria. So we’ll need more brand clients to be able to do more funny stuff. We think there’s an opportunity there given that the whole industry’s got a bit weepy. And with the political reality of Trump and Brexit, people don’t want emotional ads the whole time.