The most difficult class I took in college wasn’t trigonometry, computer programming, or even thermodynamics.
No, the subject I agonized over most was—no joke—humor writing.
There aren’t many places where you can take humor writing at the college level. But I was lucky to be at Ohio University when former Madison Avenue agency president Mel Helitzer offered a course called “Humor Writing for Fun and Profit.” The class had a limited size, and was so popular that I had to sign up a year in advance.
Mel’s class also featured my most memorable final exam: five minutes of stand-up material at a popular campus coffeehouse. I can still quote how we were graded without looking at the syllabus:
- Standing Ovation: A
- Enthusiastic Applause: B
- Polite Applause: C
- Audience Throws Fruit: F (unless fruit is edible, in which case grade is marked up to D)
I got an “A,” but getting there was murder. The actor who supposedly said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” wasn’t joking.
If recent comments are anything to go by, some of Mel’s training stuck with me. One client recently quipped “Tom does ‘cheeky’ very well” during a conference call. I also get a lot of positive feedback about the tone of “relaxed snarkiness” on my website, especially the FAQ page.
But seriously folks, humor in marketing copy isn’t just for fun. Here are 7 good reasons to go for a smile when you peddle your stuff:
- To warm up a “cold” introduction—Humor creates interest, even if a potential buyer knows you’re trying to sell something. Hook them with a joke in the critical seconds when they see your message, and you’ll have a better chance of getting them to read the rest of what you have to say. If your gag is particularly compelling, you might even get away with using the setup as a tease…making them open your mailer or click a URL to get the punchline.
- To promote controversial ideas—Polarization of opinion is a real and growing issue in our society, and not just in politics. If you need to go against a prevailing current to succeed, well-crafted humor can help you break the ice. It’s tough to be angry with someone who makes you laugh, and it puts a more positive spin on your message than predictions of doom and gloom or attacks against opposing views.
- To encourage new thinking or buying patterns—Humor can be a powerful agent for change, especially if you can highlight the absurdity of the status quo compared to the benefits of your product or service. I like to write copy that speaks plainly, so I often poke fun at “corporate-speak” when I do content marketing (past trauma has made me particularly vicious about “scalable solutions.”)
- To set a boundary—As with controversial ideas, marketing occasionally has to draw a line. For example, on my website I make a point of telling prospects that I don’t work on weekends, but I sugar-coat it by quipping “Mrs. Tumbusch gets my undivided attention on weekends.” Many people tell me they laugh when they read that—but they also get the message.
- To connect with your target buyers—If you speak the language of your audience well, you can use humor to create and reinforce connections. The Apple “I’m a Mac” / “I’m a PC” campaign is a classic example that highlighted the difference between the brands “zealots” and “pagans.”
- To position your brand as fun or unconventional—A masterful use of this technique was the “So Wrong for So Many” campaign for the Toyota Scion xB.
- To make your message memorable—When done well, laughter dramatically increases the chance that your slogan will be remembered, repeated, and re-tweeted. (That grading system quoted I quoted above? I remember it verbatim after nearly a quarter of a century.) It also makes it more likely that readers will learn from what you have to say, and pay closer attention next time. That beats another “scalable solution” any day.