You're smelly and you need a bath! that a joke?

For every company that succeeds with a funny marketing campaign, there are many others that fall flat, or even worse, offend their customers.

Funny advertising can get you attention in crowded arenas (that means in the middle of Times Square or on Twitter), but telling jokes is pretty risky.

To alleviate these risks, read on! The whoopie cushions and rubber chickens will follow.

Don't Laugh Pointlessly

At face value, adding a little ha-ha to what might otherwise be feature and benefit driven is attention grabbing, memorable, and produces social sharing.

Dr. Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, cautions against using humor just to get a laugh or to differentiate your brand from the competition.

Make sure your funny campaign has a purpose that relates to your product or integrates with your marketing goals.

Don’t Be Tedious or Tasteless

What makes a funny flop? Often, you're jokes are just boring.

“If the humor proves to be boring, then it implies your brand is not interesting and who wants to spend money on the 'boring' brand?" says McGraw. "If the humor is offensive and alienates a segment of the population, then the damage may be costly.”  

To avoid laughing alone, McGraw suggests companies first test humorous stunts. He notes that small businesses and start ups that embrace lean principles are ideally suited to test before launching a full-scale campaign.

In McGraw’s upcoming book, The Humor Code, due out on April Fool’s Day 2014 (that’s no joke!), he and journalist Joel Warner detail their epic quest to discover the secret behind what makes things funny.

Peter McGraw1

But if understanding the DNA of humor seems a little daunting or time consuming, McGraw offers these broad spectrum Dos and Don’ts:

Be Careful If You're Poking Fun of Consumers

A simple question about consumer behavior can lead to an endless source of humorous marketing opportunities. Brad Barrett, CEO of Grill Grate, advises business owners to ask ‘What’s funny about how people use your product?’ and then poke a little fun.

Nearly everyone can relate to the occasional hiccup in the kitchen or on the grill. Brad capitalizes on such relatively harmless fiascoes, flops, and messes in his campaigns. “Grilling is fun and provides humorous moments such as burning the chicken yet again,' he says. That sort of humor hits home. 

Brad hired an artist to depict what he refers to as “The Bonfire Chicken Cartoon.”  The cartoon depicts a chicken using a fire extinguisher to put itself out. Grill Gate has used images like this to engage customers in caption contests and then re-purpose the image with various captions such as “Friends Don’t Let Friends Burn Their Chicken.” 


Brad believes humor humanizes the brand.  'We are not a faceless company,' he says, 'we like to have fun too just like our customers.”

Brad reminds business owners to use natural and agreeable humor to tickle your customers’ funny bones. “People share funny stuff or things they think their friends will enjoy. For us, that type of humor carries our brand right along with it.”

Don't Get Boo-ed Off Stage

Humor can be a way to make your marketing stand out.

It may be tempting to throw caution to the wind, but a bit of consideration (and even testing) is a good idea before unleashing the clowns.

Know where the bar is set for your customers’ sense of humor - don’t play it too safe or too risky. Make sure that it relates to both your customers’ lives, and your product.

Make sure your antics have a goal, and measure their effectiveness - you may be happily surprised at how well humor can work for you.

Your Turn: What supposedly funny marketing campaigns have fallen flat? Have you ever tried to be funny? Did it work?