In the first year of my radio copywriting career I was sitting in a restaurant in Crewe, Cheshire. The people sitting on the table behind me were talking about my radio commercial. I got a very good feeling of pride initially. They almost described the commercial word for word. It was a joke, a play on words. Then I realised that they didn’t once mention the name of the client. Actually the joke could have been applied to ANY client. The joke stood by itself and didn’t even need the clients name to be mentioned, and didn’t reflect in any way the benefits of the client’s product or service. As an advert it was a failure. An ad that was once voted the top radio commercial in the UK of the previous decade, advertising video recorders (OK that dates it a bit), made people laugh, including numerous awards panels. But the client said they didn’t sell a single unit as a result of the campaign
I listen to a lot of award winning ads and have even been invited to judge some radio advertising awards. In the humour section I quite often find very funny and brilliantly conceived commercials. One which I could only hope to do as well. But these brilliant ads, the ones that work, are the ones where the humour springs out of the brief after careful thought. In Kenya there was a great series of commercials for a washing powder… the situations were humorous. A blind date, the guy finally finds the woman and says “I thought you said you were wearing a red dress?” she responds “It IS a red dress!” The result, she should have washed her clothes in this powder that “washes out the dirt, not the colours”. There is no “joke” but a humorous and eidetic situation. The series went on to other situations… and because there was no “joke” or “punch line” people didn’t get tired of the ads and still remember them with affection.
On another occasion I was called into a radio station where a local solicitor was running Personal Injury ads. The ads he had been running were funny, demonstrated the product, but he wasn’t getting any response. But then if you had been in an accident like the people he was targeting I am sure you would not find the situation funny. I wrote a series of very straight, single voice commercials voiced by the very talented Nick Jackson. The client said when they ran on the radio station it was like turning a tap on, with dozens of calls coming in every time it aired. The message was no different, but the delivery was.
Humour is very dangerous when handled wrong. If there is humour in the product or service it will come out in the scripts, but forced humour is bad and you can tell a commercial where the client has been bolted on to a funny idea the writer has been trying to get on air for months. You do not want a funny ad, you want an ad that sells product.
The secret is to ask the writers to come up with some ideas from a very clear, and very brief, brief. Make a compelling offer or reason to do business with you. If that can be delivered in a humorous way, that’s great, but don’t make “getting people to laugh” the objective of your message. Otherwise you will leave the listener with the question… “Great ad…. what was it for?”