Why Ads Aren’t Funny Anymore

I highly recommend the latest episode of Dave Dye’s podcast. It’s a chat with Orlando Wood, who has written two books on the links between psychology, creativity and advertising.

When I commented on it via Twitter, Dave said, ’It occurs to me that, although they seem different, all of our ad blogs, yours, mine, George’s, Dave T’s, Gregg Benedict’s, etc are essentially the same – Don’t forget this thing, it works.’

Yep. Or to put it another way, we like to point out where creative advertising could be better, while trying to offer solutions that often seem self-evident and easily accessed.

I wrote a post about this entire subject a while ago, so if you want to have a wallow in the weirdness of our collective insanity, go right ahead. 

In that post I explored some of the thinking behind the madness, but I didn’t really discuss humour, and the reasons why there’s not so much of it about. So here’s my attempt to do just that:

The Oscars Reason

Have you noticed that comedies very rarely win the Oscar for Best Film? Look at recent nominees: maybe CODA is a slight comedy, but it’s mainly a drama, and so is Licorice Pizza. Jojo Rabbit is a proper nominated comedy, albeit a black one. The Big Short is funny, but is it a ‘comedy’? Kind of. Ditto The Wolf Of Wall Street and Django Unchained. But that’s it: one proper comedy and a few funny dramas out of the last 100 nominees.

I think that’s because comedic artistic expression is both very hard, and not considered as positively as something serious. It’s thought to be trivial and silly, so you have to expend far more effort to do do it well, and you get much less credit for the result.

There are quite a lot of articles that go into the disappearance of the movie comedy (TL/DR: they are less profitable and Marvel-esque blockbusters have driven them out of cinemas and and onto streaming services), but I wonder if we have become a more serious planet in the last ten years. There’s a climate crisis, a pandemic, various wars and an explosion of political resentment and disagreement in many countries. Funny ads could help to alleviate all that, but they might appear out of step with the cultural vibe.

The Difficulty Reason

Very good comedy is a real craft that requires great writing, casting, editing and direction, and it’s harder to seem funny in the initial script, especially when it is now often passed around as a deck to be read rather than a presentation to be performed.

Maybe clients have seen many supposedly funny scripts fall flat, and subsequently found themselves drawn more towards a straight manifesto that’s read out over some stock footage. They’re hard to love, but they’re easy to visualise before they’re produced (you can knock them up in a ripomatic on a laptop these days), and you can easily swap out or alter lines right up until five minutes before you supply them to go on air. They can accommodate the wishes of all the client’s departments, which makes everyone’s life easier, but also makes the ad duller.

You can’t do that with a comedy. It’s impossible to pre-produce that magic alchemy of script, performance, timing and direction, so everyone has to take a leap of faith, and people (especially clients) don’t like doing that if there’s a cheap, easy non-leap of faith alternative.

Write a script with people dancing and everyone can imagine it because it’ll be like the other fifty dance scripts currently on air. The same with the serious purpose-based initiatives and the po-faced celebrations of how your chocolate bar or loo cleaner is changing the world.

The ‘Our Biscuits Are A Big Deal’ Reason

Dave and Orlando mentioned that clients probably prefer a script that says their crumpets are the best thing since sliced bread, rather than one which self-deprecatingly recognises the true insignificance of practically everything on the average supermarket shelf. They make fish fingers all day; fish fingers are very important to them; why wouldn’t they be important to the rest of the nation? Because they’re just bloody fish fingers, but try telling that to people who think about and talk about nothing but fish fingers, all day, every day. Good luck!

The Victim Reason

Comedy also needs a victim. In the past the Doofus Dad has often taken that role (idiot dad that we all roll our eyes at because he’s childish or irresponsible), but it might just as easily be a clichéd societal convention or a crappy musical genre. However, that means someone, somewhere might get offended, and then express that offence on Twitter or Instagram. No client wants that! It’s a PR disaster! Fiona in Basildon actually likes the music of Steps, thanks very much, and she’s mobilised eighteen Facebook friends to protest the pisstakey use of Tragedy in  your latest jam commercial. Quick! Pull the ad, and let us never speak of it again. And we must now apologise. Profusely.

That’s a situation best avoided, so instead let’s just be safe, and nice and not funny, because funny can be provocative, and ‘provoked’ people like causing a stink on social media to take revenge on the provokers.

The John Lewis Reason

Humour seemed to disappear around the same time as the rise of the serious/tear-jerky John Lewis ads. Some very talented people created an entirely new genre: the 60-second heart-warmer, and every client seemed to want one of their own. ‘That worked, so give us one’, is a common refrain from many clients (and many CDs), and the dominance of the John Lewis-alike may well have knocked the entire industry off its axis.

And if your biggest ad of the year is going to be one of those then you’re unlikely to spend the rest of the year being ha-ha funny; the two things would make your brand inconsistent, and many clients (and many CDs) do not like an inconsistent brand. So the tail kind of wagged the dog until it almost became weird to stand out with a throwaway gag (yes, standing out is a GOOD THING, but it also requires ‘BRAVERY’, and people don’t like being ‘BRAVE’ because it’s KINDA SCARY).

So it’s obvious why humour has fallen by the wayside: it’s difficult, expensive, hard to communicate in a deck, trivialising, guaranteed to annoy someone you want to sell things to, and not like a John Lewis ad.

That’s a pretty hard tide to swim against, but I would urge you to try because I like funny things, and, funnily enough, so does literally everyone else on earth.