Every year, the British retailer John Lewis releases its Christmas ad, a holiday tradition eagerly awaited by the ad industry. The seasonal spot typically tugs at the heartstrings with the help of a soaring soundtrack and wholesome story. But this year, after Saatchi & Saatchi won the account, industry insiders wondered if that formula would change. When the new spot dropped on Nov. 9, creatives were quick to praise it as wonderful, quirky — and also funny.
“I really appreciate the decision to focus on humor and entertainment rather than gauging the campaign’s success through tears,” Curro Piqueras, executive creative director at Dude London, told The Drum.
It’s one signal that we’re experiencing a renaissance of funny ads after a hiatus over the last two decades. “Hiatus” is putting it mildly, according to Andrew Robertson, the president and CEO of BBDO Worldwide. “Our world has been getting steadily less and less humorful,” he told an audience last June at Cannes Lions. Using Kantar data, he charted the decline of funny ads since 2002, with notable dips around the recession of 2008 and the pandemic. And as he pointed out, only 1 in 10 of the Grand Prix winners used humor in 2022.
This week the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity added a humor category to its awards for 2024. It said that judges would be looking for work that uses “wit and satire to provide amusement.” The festival is recognizing the major trend of 2023 where over half of the Film Lions winners were intentionally funny. The jury even saw fit saw fit to award a Grand Prix to Apple’s “R.I.P. Leon,” an ad that used humor to highlight the iPhone’s new “unsend message” feature.
Robertson is championing funny ads not just because they’re entertaining but because they can drive commercial growth. He coined a new tongue-in-cheek acronym: Laughter means financial achievements optimized (LMFAO). “There is really extraordinary evidence that shows how powerful humor is at driving business results because it has a positive emotional effect on an audience,” he tells The Current.
Breaking out data points to support his thesis, Robertson cites Oracle’s Happiness Report, which found that 90 percent of people say they’re more likely to remember funny ads, while only 20 percent of business leaders say they use humor in advertising campaigns. It also determined that people will reward brands that embrace humor, with 80 percent saying they’d be more likely to buy from the brand again and more likely to recommend the brand to family and friends. “We’re all missing a trick because we’ve stopped using something that we used to use much more…and we should get to it,” says Robertson.
The decline — and return — of funny ads is connected to bigger cultural changes, according to Chris Beresford-Hill, the president and chief creative officer of Ogilvy Advertising in North America. As a creative leader who’s worked on many award-winning humorous campaigns, Beresford-Hill lamented the slump in funny ads. In recent years, in the creative huddle, he’d found there were “a lot of conversations around tonality and whether a brand should be funny.”
Other agency leaders agreed with this assessment. “The world just became so litigious, scared, and serious,” says Jon Cook, the global CEO of VML. That caution stemmed from a cascade of factors — everything from the threat of “cancel culture” to the pandemic to American politics, which meant “you would start to learn there’s no joke that you can tell that doesn’t have two sides of reaction,” he says.
The data shows the paucity of funny ads, especially across different channels. According to Kantar data, radio runs the highest percentage of funny ads (55 percent), followed by TV (41 percent), digital (27 percent), print (15 percent), and outdoor (13 percent).
When it comes to award shows for the best ads, Cook notes that brands have favored super serious, if not heartbreaking, campaigns designed to stir the conscience and draw tears. These tend to win. “Everybody is taking themselves so seriously trying to create work that saves the world. I’m all for saving the world, but can we have some fun while we’re talking about that?” asks Cook.
Robertson agrees that being purpose driven and funny aren’t mutually exclusive. “There’s a sort of misguided belief, albeit maybe unintentional, that brand purpose needs to be presented in a very serious way. And I don’t think it does,” says Robertson. One example is a recent campaign by the upstart water brand Liquid Death that spoofs cosmetic surgery infomercials with a “revolutionary solution” to plastic pollution. The ad may be grotesquely funny, but it draws attention to the real fact that only 5 percent of the world’s plastic is recycled.
Likewise, a darkly funny out-of-home campaign that went viral had a serious purpose. It featured the image of a black truck advertising for “Wilmore Funeral Home” emblazoned with the message “Don’t get vaccinated.” Of course, it was a provocative campaign to promote getting vaccinated and no such funeral home existed. In 2022, this ad bucked the unfunny trend and even won a Silver Clio Award.
Beresford-Hill says that people are leery of purpose-driven ads that seem contrived by a brand to align with the cause du jour without any real relationship to the product in question. He readily admits that there are some best practices for being funny these days. For instance, humorous ads that punch down or make someone the victim won’t fly anymore, if they ever did. Beresford-Hill is a big advocate for absurdism in ads on his watch. His Mtn Dew Super Bowl commercial from 2020, featuring Bryan Cranston, is a case in point. Or this one, featuring LeBron James as a salsa teacher, which is humorous and inclusive. Another celebrated spot includes Tom Brady’s 2016 Foot Locker ad questioning “Deflategate.” What’s more, such ads tend to get shared more than others.
Robertson debunked the idea that funny ads don’t work during stressful times. In fact, one humorous ad created by French channel Canal+ tested this hypothesis. The spot parodied the Mission: Impossible – Fallout movie with a slow-moving cast of seniors. The ad ran before the pandemic and then in March 2020, and — Robertson wryly noted — audiences found it equally funny before and during the pandemic.
If funny ads are gradually back in the mix, there’s still one outlier, according to the Kantar study: The last five years of digital data shows a steady decline in the use of humor. While digital ads are under-researched, Kantar posits a possible reason: Digital ads are typically used lower down the funnel for activation, where nudging the sale is the objective. Still, there’s no reason those ads can’t be funny, too, says Beresford-Hill. “If you say something funny to someone to make them hit a button, that’s better than saying something dry.”