Selling Smiles

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Laugh, and the world laughs with you... Cry, and you cry alone... No wonder humour works everywhere


I never read The Economist,” says a Management Trainee...aged 42! Voted as the fifth best poster of the 20th century in 1999 this ad won a lot of smiles and subscriptions for the Economist magazine. A magazine, which in the 80s was considered as a serious, bordering to boring business magazine, changed its market perception with the help of a series of posters that made one smile. All they did was put up posters, twice a year, once in spring and then in autumn, two weeks each. So, four weeks of poster advertising is all it took to reposition Economist as an essential reading for the smart and well-informed, irrespective of the field they worked in. It was this series of witty advertisements that increased its UK circulation by 25% in 10 years.

“Space is a dangerous place. Especially if it’s between your years.” This was another tongue-in-cheek way of telling people that reading The Economist could help you succeed in life. If that was not enough, they kept boxes of The Economist on the counters of news agents with just two words written on them “Counter Intelligence”. The ads never failed to make one smile. As a result people recalled the ads much more. The magazine’s marketers did not brag about their magazine or explain in too many words how informative and useful the contents of their magazine were. Instead, they used subtle humour that not just broke the market perception of the magazine being a serious one, but also made it likeable & approachable. No wonder, the creative agency – Abbot Mead Vickers BBDO – won several awards for this particular series.

Humour is a universal language. It works everywhere. It has a way of lightening up things, moods, situations. It can cut across cultures, classes and many other barriers. It’s a fact that people love to laugh and anyone who can make them do that gets his share of praise and popularity. In fact, it’s the easiest way to make people aware of you. It cannot be denied that humour is a very powerful emotion. No wonder, today it has become a powerful weapon being used by advertisers and marketers alike. Most of them are using humour as a potent weapon to coax customers into buying their products. If used intelligently, it always works. Humour has the ability to disarm people. When they are no more overcautious and skeptical, it becomes easy to convince them.

And humour does not require too many words, as the Economist campaign proved. In fact, sometimes you can drive home the point, without using any words at all. Remember the brilliant advertisements of ‘Centre Shock’? They said it all without saying a word. No dialogues were exchanged between the people, yet humour was conveyed effectively. (In fact, words would have even reduced the impact).

“Laughter is a bodily exercise precious to health,” said Aristotle. It has also become the most precious exercise for advertisers. The best part is that it works. They have used humour to bail companies out of difficult situations. Cricket is something people in India are most passionate about. So when the World Cup was being staged here, Coke won a point over Pepsi by becoming one of the official sponsors of the event. Not one to be left behind, Pepsi had a plan up its sleeves too. If it could not enter the cricket grounds it decided to attract everybody’s attention outside the field. “Nothing official about it,” chuckled Pepsi and people smiled too. Their campaign was more memorable and appreciated than even the official sponsors – Coke!

However, Coke too got its chance to even out when Michael Jackson (the celebrity endorser for Pepsi) fainted during one of his concerts. Coke immediately came out with an ad which said “Dehydrated? Try Coke.” Even Pepsi supporters could not help but grin! Laughter is a good strategy to win over your competitors. It’s so harmless and enjoyable that the consumer actually doesn’t mind trying out your product at least once. Humour has a wonderful warmth that comes right through and embraces you. “Good humour is one of the best articles of dress one can wear in society,” said William Thackeray. It’s one of the best ways to dress up the benefit of your products, which will always be liked. So, why then does humour work?

a. Humour attracts people
It’s a quick way of explaining your product benefits. It’s better than just narrating a story, or even hard-selling your product. It has the capability of holding the audience by their collar and making them listen to the whole message without them even realising it. As John Cleese said, “If I can make you laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas.” No wonder Virgin Blue, in Australia, decided to put in some humour into the generally humourless cabin announcements on flights. They said, “We will be dimming the cabin lights for take-off. For those of you who want to continue reading, you will notice above your head are two buttons: one with a light symbol and the other with an attendant symbol. Pressing the first one will turn on your reading light. Unfortunately pressing the other one will not turn on the flight attendant.” And suddenly passengers were alert and listening to announcements.

The move by Virgin Blue can be commended as one of the best image building exercises ever. The message reinforced the image of Virgin Blue as being young, innovative and friendly. What’s more, as people got down from the aircraft, along with their baggage they were carrying stories too. Now, isn’t that what every product wants-to be talked about?

b. Humour is an effective strategy
Humour breaks the ice. It helps build bonds. In advertising it helps break clutter and makes your commercial stand out. Just when all the paint companies were talking about the goodness and long lasting benefits of their paints, along came Asian Paints with a dash of humour to break the monotony. The Sunil Babu campaign was soon on everybody’s lips. Without saying it, the message of durability and long lasting nature of Asian Paints came across clearly. Soon Asian Paints became a household name. So much so that Nerolac had to shell out millions to rope in Amitabh Bachchan to hold on to its market share.

When Bajaj wanted to change its image from fuddy-duddy to contemporary, it decided to go the humourous way. They showed a small boy trying hard to catch a glimpse of the TV, craning his neck from outside the balcony. He is actually perched on the shoulders of another boy who is also precariously balanced on the shoulders of another man sitting on a Bajaj Scooter. The little one screams, “Shot!” The other boy screams, “Kya caught? Caught sachhi?” the other one exclaims in jubilation “Sachin shot…..yeh!” An old man passing by shakes his head and mutters “Kya pagalpan hai.” The ad ends with a voice over that says, “Bajaj – the official carrier of the Indian cricket fan.” The popularity of the vehicle was conveyed in an easy manner. No tall claims, no arrogance, just simple light humour.

When you make people laugh, they actually acknowledge your message. Ericsson’s “one black coffee please” campaign, became a trendsetter for the industry. The fact that the phone was so small that it could fit into the palm of the hand was cleverly communicated through this humorous ad. Today, Dominos too is trying to use the lighter side to highlight its “30 minutes rule.” Instead of making big promises, the ad jeers at ‘it’ as being something impossible. You laugh your way into believing that Dominos does deliver in 30 minutes.

c. Humour is cost effective
Yes, and that’s really the best part. It saves your money and is very cost effective. Remember the ads for The Economist. They used posters only, and that too just twice a year. If the humour is good, it is remembered & doesn’t require frequent repetitions. If you have a good idea, you don’t require elaborate sets. Best of all, you can save those millions you spend to get a celebrity to endorse the brand.

As Charles Browder once said “there is no such thing as “soft sell” and “hard sell”. There is only “smart sell” and “stupid sell”. If you are smart, you will use humour. So, when Mint-o was faced with competition from the multinational giant Polo, it used humour to make its place in the market. Its ads asking “Do you have a hole in your head?” made it quiet memorable and Mint-o gained a lot of popularity for itself at minimal cost. Similarly, when Captain Cook salt was pitched against the heavyweight Tata Salt, it used humour (the smart option) to fight the battle. You had the housewife comparing the benefits of a popular salt (read Tata salt) with a good-for-nothing new product Captain Cook. Of course, in the end Captain Cook won the war, as the humour made people try the product. Of course, it didn’t cost much either. That’s the advantage of adding humour in your campaigns. Just as its important to know the power of humour, its equally important to know what works and what does not work.

Culture specific humour?

In India, if there is a brand that has its hand on the pulse of the Indian psyche, its Feviquick. From catching fishes to catching flies, Feviquick has done it all. Theirs is a very intelligent way of associating “bonding” with Fevicol. The commercial uses no words, so it appeals to people across the country, whatever language they speak. The ads have a delightful appeal everywhere. They don’t poke fun at anyone. They make you laugh and at the same time remember the brand. What an interesting way to communicate the benefits of a boring product like an adhesive!

Cadbury’s Pappu paas ho gaya ad would probably be a favourite of the humour-loving audience. A country where academic qualifications are looked up to with pride, the audience really understood the sentiments of the whole town when Pappu finally passed his exams. A great ad surely! Even The Times of India used this same philosophy for its campaign ‘A day in the life of India’, light-heartedly showcasing things unique to India, just like the paper itself.

Consumers in different markets need to be convinced in different ways. It’s not always a good idea to treat the world as one large market. Being sensitive to the culture of the people always works better. After all, British advertising is as different from American advertising as is American humour from British. Americans find English humour ‘highbrow’, just as the English find American humour ‘full of slangs’ and ‘cheap’. Indian humour, on the other hand, is more slapstick and exaggerated. What works in Britain needn’t work in Saudi Arabia. If Lebanese like to make fun of themselves, Egyptians may not. So, it’s a good idea to understand the culture and the humour that it appreciates before creating a communication for the target segment.

Remember humour; forget the ad

Many a times, people may love to joke, laugh out loud too, yet finally no one may buy the product. Worse still, many a time, they may even forget the brand name. These are the final words of caution: humour is a good tool to deliver the message. It cannot be the message. It should be used to enhance the bigger brand image.

Use humour to attract customers, not distract them. Humour should be relevant to the product. Use humour to be friendly, not funny. Remember, humorous advertisements have the quickest burnout time & become stale very fast; though subtle humour does suffer from less burnout.

We all know that humour makes the world go round. As Steve Allen once said, “Humour is a social lubricant that helps us get over some of the bad spots.” So, go ahead and use a lot of humour. You may surely sell a lot of your products; but how about now selling smiles too?