At risk of explaining jokes and rendering them unfunny, this talk at the 2021 New Blood Festival focused on how to use humour in your creative work. Moderated by designer and creative consultant Craig Oldham, a panel of guests comprising Mother London strategist Tatiana Jezierski; photographer and director at Scribble Scrabble Productions, Jessica Pettway; and Oliver Knowles, co-creator of Led By Donkeys discuss the tricky art of using humour to convey a serious message, to connect people, and help you sell more.
Watch the video above or get the need-to-know below.
How being funny lands a serious message
Just because something’s funny, it doesn’t mean it can’t deliver a serious story. Political and social campaigning has long understood the value of humour (satire being a prime example). Oliver Knowles, who worked for Greenpeace before co-founding Led By Donkeys, describes humour as a “great tool” that offers “a step forward in terms of landing that fundamental message…”. He adds, “If you get somebody to be able to laugh, you're moving into a space that they're engaged with.”
Jokes connect with people
In creative projects as in life, sharing a joke with someone is an instant bonding moment – it feels good to laugh, and to make someone laugh. “Humour is a way to get over a chasm,” says Tatiana Jezierski. “That idea of closing a gap, reaching out and communicating in a common language is what makes humour so powerful in advertising.”
Jessica Pettway adds, “It’s fun when you’re shooting everyday things to show them in a new light, like ‘why can’t we put a hat on it?’... It's just a fun way to connect with people and create a shared experience that gets to the point.”
Humour makes your insights look smarter
Good advertising is built around good insights, but in order to communicate those, a brand has to instil a sense of trust and relevance in its audience. That could mean packing an emotional punch, but humour is an excellent vehicle for storytelling thanks to the fact it often packs an element of surprise.
“Humour involves pushing boundaries, irreverence and unexpected ways of dressing up an insight – that's what makes it more memorable,” says Jezierski. “You catch people off guard a little bit, and that opens them up. It conveys what we're saying and instills confidence and competence: you’ve spotted a special insight and then found a really creative, bold way to bring it to life.”
It’s all about the delivery
A good joke – be it in the pub, or in a campaign – is only as effective as the way you tell it. Led By Donkeys’ started its Brexit campaign with posters bearing quotes from politicians, but their placement was vital for the gag to land. “On paper, it doesn't really work – it sounds really dry and flat. But it was in the delivery and the context of putting them up in the street, as you were able to compare the hyperbole and exaggeration of politicians’ claims against the unfolding reality of Brexit – there was that human contact,” says Knowles.
Much of Pettway’s work is targeted at millennials, so the key to her subtle visual jokes is identifying the iconography that’ll evoke nostalgia. “It’s fun to find what's familiar,” she says. “Knowing when that humour’s gonna land or not is a similar muscle to this creativity in general: if you keep working at something, you’ll figure out what makes sense.”
Being funny is being heard
We all know the kind of people who are first off the mark with a witty response, those who ace pub banter, or have a knack for the surreal. In a work setting, those who we might assume are the funniest are also the ones who get their voices heard. Most often, that means they’ve honed the confidence to deliver “funny”. For many creative types who tend toward introversion, it can be challenging to contribute and take space in large, daunting group settings.
“We can all think genius thoughts, but making them heard in a professional environment is about having the confidence to deliver them,” says Knowles. Pettway adds, “Going after humour or telling a joke carries the same level of vulnerability as sharing something intimate… any creative team should give room for anyone to throw ideas out there.”
Making funny creative work isn’t without its risks
Humour easily fails when it’s widely deemed to have gone too far. While some whine about an overly easily offended culture, the fact is that it’s not funny if it’s just offensive. That’s something Knowles learned the hard way with a set of posters ridiculing Ann Widdecombe thanks to her homophobia – it worked in the context of Led By Donkeys’ wider campaign, but failed as a standalone poster. “We got huge amounts of feedback saying the poster looks wrong: without more context, it just looks like this piece of homophobic speech. It didn't work,” Knowles explains, adding they should have road tested it by “speaking to people outside our bubble.”
Remember the underlying purpose of an ad: to sell
As anyone working in the creative industries is aware, it’s all well and good coming up with what you reckon is a brilliant, hilarious creative idea; it’s another to sell that in to the client and get it approved. “A lot of the selling of any idea will rely on someone going through the rationale, the audience insights and the process of how you got to it – making sure that you are still making an advert that still has a business function, there’s still a message they want to land. Being able to show that remains the North Star of the creative idea is really important,” says Jezierski. As she points out, what clients often fear is that a joke detracts from how serious they are about their product and their brand: proving the business value in a humorous creative idea is the best way of reassuring them.
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