Using Humor in Corporate Videos and Commercials

Comedy is a great way to engage audiences and hook them as part of an effective marketing video, but it also has pitfalls to avoid. Humor that one person finds hilarious, another person finds offensive. Especially in today’s world, the battle between PC social justice warriors and everyone else means many topics of humor are best left to late-night comedians and avoided by corporations. One need not look any further than Pepsi’s disastrous Kendall Jenner commercial, which was immediately pulled, to understand the dangers of comedy when mixed with politics. While politics is almost a definite subject to avoid, it’s not the only subject around which brands should tread carefully.

Playing around with gender comedy is potentially dangerous, especially when a brand assumes specific gender roles and the humor is based solely around such assumptions. For instance, “look at the silly girl trying to hunt with a big rifle” or “look at Mr. Dad struggling to take care of the kids” are just dated comedy tropes that simply don’t work in the 21st century. Not only will a small but substantial group of people oppose the depictions because of social justice reasons, but another group will be offended because you’ll make them feel inadequate in some way. A great stay-at-home dad shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed by what he does for his family while watching your commercial, any more than a lady should feel less ladylike because she enjoys hunting or shooting at a range. Why alienate potential customers when you don’t need to use such humor to sell your brand?

Other somewhat obvious jokes to avoid are ones about fat people, which is most Americans now days, or comedy that isn’t body-positive. Along the same lines, joking about bullying or any mental health issues is clearly off limits. Among the less obvious jokes that will alienate a large section of the potential viewership are jokes about video gamers being lazy, people being selfish for not wanting kids or assuming every family has kids in it, or any other stereotypes that frankly have no basis in reality and just reinforce incorrect world views. Most people don’t need to be told not to make jokes at the expense of gays and lesbians, specific ethnicities, etc., but be careful not to make stereotypical jokes you don’t think are offensive, but could still be to some. For instance, suggesting that every girl needs a gay best friend for fashion advice, or that black people are funnier than white people, or so-called “positive stereotypes” that still perpetuate differences based purely on race, sexual preference, or gender. No good can come from such jokes, frankly, even if many people aren’t going to be offended; why invite the controversy at all?

When looking for safe humor, consider situational humor as a great source of comedy value that won’t land your brand in any undesirable PR situations. For instance, someone showing up to work late and dealing with an angry boss or making a mistake we have all made at some point (creating a mess, underdressing for an event, etc.). I think a fantastic example of a rather hilarious campaign is the Southwest Airlines “Wanna Get Away?” campaign. Each example shows someone in a really awkward situation that is almost immediately funny, then transitions into advertising cheap airfares to escape your awkward reality. For me, the campaign is very memorable and finds a funny way to convey simple information — cheap airline tickets. After the United Airlines involuntary, violent removal of a passenger recently, I thought Southwest could show a commercial of a United customer service rep fielding one awkward phone call after another, then their famous slogan: “Wanna get away?” Granted, Southwest probably doesn’t want to go there, but as a parody commercial it would be hilarious.

Other great sources of comedy are any outlandish situations that are beyond reality for almost anyone, so they avoid hitting too close to home. For instance, a “worst case scenario” type of occurrence that’s patently ridiculous but also funny. A good example would be the Holiday Inn Express commercials, which I also love. The idea that someone could spend a night in a hotel, any hotel, and awake the next morning able to pilot a 747 or give medical advice is completely ridiculous, but also hilarious. The opportunities to create new commercials along the same lines are numerous, too. Every single commercial followed the basic formula of someone saying, “No, I’m not a (profession), but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night!” Regardless of what I personally think of Holiday Inn Express, I definitely remember the brand name and the message, which is that I’m going to feel my best and be ready to conquer the day after a good night’s sleep at one of their hotels.

Although it’s just my personal philosophy as a writer-director and not any sort of rule you have to follow, I think humor is mandatory in a long training video. I fully understand how serious training employees properly is for companies, and I think in short 3-5 minute videos you can stick to the procedures and facts, but I feel that training videos 10 minutes or longer need some comic relief. Otherwise, employees lose interest and their minds wander. If most viewers lose interest in videos after 90 seconds (which statistics say they do), why would employees watching mandatory training videos be any different? The jokes need not be hilariously funny or painfully included at inopportune moments, but a light-hearted mood goes a long way in creating a corporate culture where employees feel like the company has a sense of humor and understands people aren’t robots.