Once upon a time, the world’s most buttoned-up company, IBM, ran an ad that showed Santa searching a database for good children. The New York Times ran a piece about the ad as a symbol of one of the great turnaround stories of modern business, proof that–in the words of then CEO Lou Gerstner–elephants could dance. Over the next year, IBM’s stock price rose 136%. I wrote that ad, and I never forgot the lesson it taught me: Being funny can make you money.
Now, decades later, my consulting firm uses artificial intelligence to measure people’s sense of humor, among other things. Our analysis shows that there are eight different kinds of humor: parody, dark, toilet, surreal, satire, slapstick, deadpan, and self-deprecation. Not all of them appeal to all people, but when you find the right fit for your audience, you can turn your brand around.
Take Taco Bell. Eight years ago, it was Taco Hell. Now it’s a go-to destination for a generation of restaurant goers. Some of that can be attributed to the surreal sense of humor it’s developed on social media that is spot on for the deep-fried memes crowd.
When Jaguar launched its F-Type, it needed to persuade the world to rethink its “smug dad in the golf club” image. It did it with more than sex on wheels: It made the first-ever funny ad for a luxury car. Sophisticated consumers like deadpan humor–it’s the confidence of understatement–and Jag nailed it.
And then there are airline safety videos. Remember when you didn’t watch them, before they became a whole kaleidoscope of surreal humor, parody, and slapstick? Now they’re often the most entertaining part of the flight.
It’s the same life-or-death information: Buckle up, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Now it’s finally become more compelling than getting the last juice out of Twitter before the cabin crew makes you turn your phone off. And that’s the critical thing. Whatever you’re trying to communicate now, whether it’s an internal email or a million-dollar ad, you’re competing with the most compelling content machine of all time, sitting in somebody’s pocket. So it’s more critical than ever to know your audience, and understand what gets them to crease up.
Of course, humor can go horribly wrong. I once asked a standup comedian friend what the worst heckle of his life was. He said one of his jokes was greeted with complete silence, and then he just heard somebody say, “Poor guy.” When you strike a duff note, everybody’s toes curl.