Should You Use Humor In Your Marketing?

They’ve been many occasions I’ve sat at my computer screen agonizing over whether I should use some witty headline or just go for clarity and say exactly what I mean.

Sometimes it’s a genuinely funny one-liner, but more often than not it’s a lame play on words – the type that you roll your eyes at when you see them with nauseating predictability in newspaper headlines.

“Telecom Giant Rings In Record Profits”
“Mining Company Digs Itself Out Of Trouble”


Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves even when we know how bad it is. Yet it’s not limited to bad puns, it can also be visual humor in the form of pictures or videos.


One of the ideas behind embedding humor in advertising is the hope that the ad goes “viral” i.e. people start spreading it for its comedic value.

While this can and does happen, the chance of achieving this is astronomically low. Even if it does happen, the commercial benefit of this is dubious.

Yes, funny gets attention but the question is attention on what?

I’ve always been amazed how companies tolerate ads by their high priced ad agencies where clearly the entire objective is to win some creative award and bring attention to the agency rather than the product or service they purport to be advertising.

Whether or not the ad generated any sales seems secondary and sometimes you even struggle to figure out what product they’re actually advertising.


The question I like to ask myself when writing ad copy is – do I want to be funny and famous or do I want to be a business success?

These are one and the same if you are John Cleese or Ricky Gervais but for most other business owners these are generally going to be mutually exclusive.

Here are some important questions when considering adding humor to your marketing:

  • Will it add to or detract from the message?
  • Will it send the reader/listener/viewer on a tangent trying to figure it out?
  • Will it frustrate and alienate readers/listeners/viewers who don’t understand the humor or reference?
  • Will it offend anyone in my target market?
  • Will it distract from the flow of the ad?
  • Will some people reading it not bother trying to figure it out?

The answer to one or more of the above questions is usually yes, which is why I often recommend steering clear of humor in marketing.

Humor varies wildly between people of different race, age, demographic, education and cultural background, which is why it can be extremely difficult to pull off.

My advice is usually: choose clarity over cleverness.

It’s hard enough to get a message read, understood then acted upon without adding potential confusion into the mix.


As with most rules, there are exceptions. There are certain situations where using humor can strengthen your marketing message.

If you are targeting a very narrow market that have a very similar demographic profile (e.g. doctors, mechanics, florists) and they are all likely to understand your references, you can build rapport by using “insider” humor.

Positioning yourself as an industry “insider” is a powerful way to build credibility and authority in your niche.

Existing customers are another exception. At least with existing customers, the stakes are lower if they fail to understand your message.

Using humor with existing customers can help with retention and position you as the “fun” or “irreverent” alternative to your stodgy competition.

Depending on the product or service you sell and who you sell it to, this can bring significant goodwill to your brand.

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