That’s not funny!

The other day, a colleague was talking about a favorite television spot, and after describing it, he commented, 'God, I love funny commercials.' Then he paused and added, with perfect timing, 'When they're funny.'

The other day, a colleague was talking about a favorite television spot, and after describing it, he commented, ‘God, I love funny commercials.’ Then he paused and added, with perfect timing, ‘When they’re funny.’

I agree with him on both points. Every once in a while you hear some long-faced gentleman proclaiming that humor doesn’t work, that it overpowers the brand identification (sometimes true) and interferes with the serious sales message (oh, lighten up). But advertising history is filled with campaigns that made laughter and money at the same time – Maytag, Budweiser, Federal Express, etc. – and as the media explosion makes attention-getting tougher and tougher, funny spots aren’t a luxury, they’re a necessity.

But my friend’s second point is equally true. There’s nothing much more disastrous than a commercial that shouts ‘I’m funny, I’m funny, I’m funny!’ and then delivers only pain. It’s the advertising equivalent of the guy at the party who thinks that enough Bacardi makes him George Carlin.

Miles Ramsay, the Vancouver comic genius of radio, once said that making funny commercials was incredibly hard work. Said Miles, ‘You have to sit at the typewriter [this is an old quote] until beads of sweat form on your brow, and maybe then you’re beginning to have half a chance.’

There are a couple of radio commercials out there now where sweat didn’t happen. Somebody just went into the file marked ‘LAME CONCEPTS’, pulled out the top one, and said, ‘This’ll be a riot.’ Wrong-o.

One of these spots, sadly, is made by the company that I cited two paragraphs ago as a classic example of successful humor. O FedEx, how the mighty have fallen. Their newest effort promotes some kind of contest, and it starts from the ‘This guy is so stupid that…’ premise.

The hero of the spot is so stupid that we find him loading himself into a FedEx box, preparing to ship himself somewhere and thus win the contest. His patient co-worker, who must be a saint for sharing a cubicle with this dolt, points out that actual entry into the box is not required for entry into the contest. She then takes the opportunity to explain at great length the actual rules of the competition, while he says ‘Oh’ a lot.

Then there’s the ‘You mean we’re really not talking about sex, it sure sounds like it’ premise, as presented by Air Miles. All subtlety goes out the window in this commercial. The guy is the straight man, while the woman uses a bedroom voice straight out of a Mae West parody. He thinks she’s talking sex and she thinks she’s talking Air Miles, or the other way around, or something.

They milk every single entendre that could make a fourteen-year-old snicker. ‘I’m not just getting it here, you know.’ ‘Are you getting it all over town?’ (Another spot adds, ‘I’m pulling it out everywhere.’) And finally, just on the infinitesimal chance that you haven’t gotten the ‘joke’ yet, ‘I have needs that you just don’t understand…’The listener wants to scream, and not in ecstasy.

Humor is good, but humor is hard. And good humor starts with good scripts. Another of my radio heroes, Harvey Atkin, the comic actor, says, ‘When the guy in the control room starts directing you to ‘have fun with it’, you know you’re in trouble, because that means there’s no fun in it to start with.’

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One final observation on the infamous Marketing Awards ad. The ad has been described in several publications, including this one, as ‘tongue in cheek’. This strikes me as somewhat anatomically inaccurate.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.