Why humour is your best asset to stand out from a ‘sea of seriousness’

Juniper Park\TBWA's Jenny Glover explains why you don't necessarily need knee-slappers to break up tonal conventions.
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By Jenny Glover

A while back, I was asked by the TBWA global collective to do a masterclass on something that I felt passionate about. I chose humour – a choice I made while completely sober, I might add.

To be clear, the intention was never to school advertising creatives on how to be funny; I’m neither that skilled nor brave. Rather, I wanted to position humour as a disruption to the “sea of seriousness” that has been the norm in the industry for the past few years.

I have nothing against serious, thought-provoking or purpose-led work. It’s an apt reflection of the world we operate in and the humans we seek to connect with. My peeve is the sense of sameness of it all. Looking at a global body of work is like listening to Enya: we’re missing the fundamentals of memorability, distinctiveness, surprise and yes, not putting audiences to sleep.

This is where I think humour can help us elevate our work and provide a much-needed tonal disruption.

For those with commitment issues or the humour-shy, remember that humour doesn’t have to be a wall-to-wall approach. Ranging from subtle moments of levity to wet-your-pants-funny, it is excellent “seasoning,” a smart way to create moments of tonal variation and carve out the light and shade that’s so vital to great creative work.

I always reference the very vintage – and frankly unfunny – Sony Bravia “Balls” spot from 2005 to demonstrate the power of adding this tonal seasoning. What always struck me was the fact that the only scene in this visually stunning commercial that people actually ever spoke about or remembered was the frog hopping out of the drainpipe. It provided a hint of a smile, the rib-poke in an otherwise tonally very same-same spot.

This is the stuff that lifts work out from the tonal flatline, and potentially creates those attractive pointy spikes on research graphs.

Often, it can simply be a case of applying some executional personality, wit, and levity without necessarily creating an obviously funny piece. Libresse’s “Viva La Vulva” work, for example, isn’t thigh-slappingly funny, but it is witty menstrual feminism and completely tonally refreshing within the fem power convention. Spot on for audience sentiment.

I’ve always been a great believer in humour as a really cunning and crafty communication tool. Think about how we use it every day to push through adversity, soften tough conversations, deliver bad news or tell creative teams that you’ve just bombed two weeks’ worth of ideas.

Yet, so often it feels like we’re completely terrified to create work for a serious brand or topic that feels joyful or elicits smiles, as if this would somehow be offensive. Dougal Wilson’s brilliant “We’re the Superhumans” spot for the Rio Olympics is proof that this is a completely ridiculous notion. This work is playful, whimsical and tackles the topic with a real sense of humour, but most importantly, it delivers a piece that is enormously empowering for para-athletes.

A more recent example worth mentioning is Beco’s “Steal our Staff.” A pure purpose-driven idea that is elevated through a surprisingly light, almost self-deprecating tone. The sense of humour is the vehicle for the humanity of this work and instantly lands the humanity and empathy of the brand.

It’s not a stretch to say there’s been a devastating global humour drought in the past few years, and I don’t see a massive fundamental shift happening anytime soon. But I do think we can be smarter and more varied in how we choose to communicate.

Within the current “serious” tonal convention we can either create work that blends into the collective pea soup, or we can use that almighty tool that got us all through puberty.

Jenny Glover is ECD at Juniper Park\TBWA.