Get Serious

What humor can do to your profits isn't very funny at all.

Guerrillas know purchase decisions are made in the subconscious mind. Guerrillas also know a slam-dunk method of accessing the subconscious mind: repetition. Put those two thoughts together and you begin to understand the miracle behind the process of marketing. Repetition implants the purchase idea in the subconscious mind . . . which is where the decisions are made.

There's one fatal error, however, that can screw up this whole process--big time: the use of humor.

Yes, humor. Masquerading as a clown, humor is in reality a vampire. It sucks attention away from your prime offer, calling attention to itself and not to your product or service, causing people to remember the funny joke and not the claims and promises you make.

And humor gets worse with repetition. The first time your humorous ad or commercial runs, people get a big laugh out of it (you hope). But by the fifth time it runs, people begin to get turned off--not only to your boring use of humor but also to you and whatever it is you're selling.

The meaning is clear: Repetition, normally your friend, becomes your mortal enemy when it is applied to humor.

That's why you've got to be ultra-careful when it comes to humor. The Energizer Bunny is ultra-careful. He keeps going and going and going . . . but he changes the punch line regularly. He can afford to, because he's one rich bunny. But I doubt if you're one rich bunny, so I doubt if you can afford to change commercials at will.

How about the Jolly Green Giant? His use of humor is wonderful. That's because it is never really "funny ha-ha," but instead is light-hearted. There's an enormous difference.

It takes a true master to use humor properly, and even true masters sometimes strike out. Back when Alka-Selzer was running the funniest commercials on earth, Alka-Selzer sales were plunging down, down, down. That's because when people have a bad bellyache and rush to the pharmacy, the last thing they want is a good belly laugh. They want relief that works fast. So they buy Pepto-Bismol or Tums or some other product that treats their delicate condition seriously--the same way they treat it.

Can humor ever be used effectively? Yes, if used by a marketing realist--a person who puts the sale ahead of the laugh. It may also be used--with care--for an inexpensive product such as chewing gum. But I doubt it can help move cars.

Unfortunately, when people who are trying to create advertising find themselves up against a deadline or a blank sheet of paper, they often fall into the trap of using humor to compensate for the lack of a real idea. Some people even think advertising and marketing are supposed to be funny. I'm not sure where that notion came from, but you'll see enough lame humor in commercials to prove it's alive and well.

When you examine market leaders, you will hardly ever find a leader who got there by making people laugh along the way. They may have made people smile a bit, but you can be certain the leader's ads didn't provoke a guffaw.

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The late Jay Conrad Levinson is the Father of Guerrilla Marketing. His books have sold more than 21 million copies worldwide, appear in 62 languages, and have become the most powerful brand in the history of marketing. He was the chairman of Guerrilla Marketing International. Learn more at gmarketing.com.

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Get Serious.

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