What Makes Things Funny – What Marketers Can Learn

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Much like Monty Python’s ‘Search for the Holy Grail,’ Peter McGraw and his researchers at the Humor Lab in Boulder, Colorado, have set about on a ‘funny’ quest – or a quest for what’s funny. That’s a tall order. In this podcast, I had the fun privilege of asking Peter about his work and what marketers can learn from it. In the end, there is no risk-free humor ride. However, I think Peter’s work and the work of the HuRL (Humore Research Lab) adds a rich dimension to our understanding of what we find funny and why.

The cornerstone of his research on what makes things funny is the “benign violation theory.”

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Podcast: What Makes Things Funny on Keeping it Human

Peter McGraw, a man and his sweater vest

What Makes Things Funny: A Few Tips From Peter and Kathy


1. Benign violations theory.
Peter’s theory focuses on the intersection of two concepts: an unexpected event/idea/etc (the violation) and a non-threatening occurrence of it (the benign part): meaning no one gets hurt. An example is something falling down the stairs (unexpected perhaps) and we laugh because no one got hurt (the benign part). The theory is just a starting point for understanding how humor works. Doesn’t cover everything – however, it does build on nicely to theories that have preceded it.

2. Always know your audience.
I love this – not just because it’s true! Regardless of whether you use humor or what type of humor you use, you need to know what your audience finds funny. This is just great marketing and comedy. Comedians like marketers have a voice and know who their core audience is. Get specific. Make a commitment to focus your humor for a specific audience. Creating humor for a general audience can be hard – it’s the lowest common denominator approach. So know your audience, their challenges, what they find funny, troubling, etc.

3. Does it fit with your objectives? Humor can be a great asset in marketing and sales. Make sure it fits with what you are trying to do as a company whether it is awareness, press, sales, or all of the above.

4. Can it augment your voice? There are very few funny brands out there; however, brands can use humor to underscore their differentiation. Peter brought up a great example from Nike. And I think B2B brands can learn a lot from consumer brands. In this Nike commercial, the woman who wears Nike gear outruns the monster (who gets winded) precisely because Nike shoes are about performance. Using it to highlight differentiation is a great way to use it.

5. Do the assessment and test – yet don’t fear taking risks.
One of things I brought up with Peter and I’ve written about often is the idea that not all risk is created equal. Some risk is too much; some risk is small recoverable risk. Trying new things in marketing and sales is important. You can vet / test a campaign with your sales team, for example. You can also test it externally with a small sample of your best customers. Get their visceral reaction. (Kathy’s note: don’t ask what they think! That’s the wrong organ. It’s either funny or it’s not). The best way to sample is to get it in front of people where you can see the reaction. Presentations are a great live test. Nothing is risk-free. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. Conversely, some situations won’t call for it. If anything, small risks can make a difference. A great example Peter brought up was Doritos. They do a great job during the Superbowl because they do several things: 1) they outsource the content creation to fans; and 2) they vet it in advance. Don’t overthink it. A heuristic such as ‘benign violation theory’ is a great guidepost. Don’t use it to erect more intellectual barriers to saying no. Want more ideas? Listen to the podcast below and check out my new ebook on Amazon.com.

Enough Talk! Listen to The Podcast

New Marketing Podcasts with kathyklotzguest on BlogTalkRadio

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