Think about the last ad that stuck with you or was discussed en masse: you probably laughed, cried, or absolutely hated it—which made you rage-cry? Lots of businesses use humor to sell products or services. But plenty of people don't think humor is appropriate during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subjectivity of comedy makes it seem like a bit of a gamble for a marketer.
As a comedy writer for various satire sites like McSweeney's, Betches, and Shouts & Murmurs, I'm firmly in Camp "Buy the ticket. Take the ride." But when I see an ad attempt humor only to botch it and become what the kids call "cringe," I mourn the missed opportunity of a premise gone awry.
But chances are, these brands didn't know their audience or missed the mark completely with a convoluted or downright insensitive approach. When crafted with care, a well-placed joke or self-effacing quip has the power to unite, endear, or invoke solidarity. Like the time an onslaught of readers contacted the Zapier blog in horrified amusement to point out an "error."
Here are some tips for writing humorous copy without embarrassing your brand.
Know your audience
If you know your target market as well as you should, you know what won't sit right with them. Whip out those marketing personas and put the people into your process. House-husband Jim who swears by TikTok and Twitter-bound meme-connoisseur Leslie may both buy your products—but they probably won't laugh at the same punchlines. Segment and target accordingly.
The Zapier blog you're on here is a great example of this. The people who worked on that article I mentioned above knew that readers like you, who work in brand management and content marketing, would identify with:
Thinking 2020 would be "your year" and then being very, very wrong
Mass warnings to avoid publishing content not ready for publication
The pitfalls of purely digital communication
Obviously, those unfamiliar with the content side of things might not have resonated with this piece—and that's ok! Zapier knew a segment of the audience would—and made that piece specifically for that segment.
But how did it combine those three elements to make funny? That's where your premise comes in.
Have a clear premise
Let's start with a definition. When it comes to comedy, a premise is the overarching idea of your joke. For that blog article we've been discussing, the premise would be a blog published prematurely during a collective crisis. Simple as that.
Don't muddle the message by complicating your premise. Your joke, whether one line or an extended metaphor, should never lose its way like the proverbial shaggy dog story. A comedic joke, monologue, article, or ad should only have one premise on which you riff. And premises form the basis of setups, the first half of the joke formula (setup + punchline = joke).
The premise is often presented right in the title: "PLEASE UPDATE: Why 2020 will be even better than 2019." Another great example is How to (appropriately) use emoji at work. You know exactly what you're in for: jokes about inappropriate emoji in a work context.
Write your setup
To help keep you on track while writing setups for your jokes, I recommend following this formula outlined in Judy Carter's Comedy Bible:
Attitude + premise + insight
An attitude is your feeling (sad/angry/frustrated/silly/stupid/etc.) about the premise and serves as the basis for your insight or comedic observation, which you then joke about.
Here's an example:
It's frustrating when you leave a bunch of warnings in your CMS so something isn't published prematurely only to have someone publish it prematurely and reveal how hopeful we were about a year that turned out to be collectively terrible for us all because digital communication can be tricky without proper systems in place and we don't have all that much control over the world and our roles in it.
Yeah, setups aren't funny—and they aren't meant to be! Often, they're sad, sad truths about the world, like terrible communication in (work) relationships. But they're the foundation of a strong punchline. And once you have the overarching setup for your piece, you can move on to writing "smaller" setups for all of your jokes therein.
Make sure to write a number of solid setups before you move on to punchlines. That way, if one isn't working for you, you can throw it out without feeling like you're giving up on your only child.
Punch up your punchlines
Now is when you get to make fun of the sad/angry/frustrating/silly/stupid truth you've crafted. Be silly. Come up with a bunch of punchlines, and don't censor yourself. Let loose, untuck your shirt, unbutton a button—but just one. This is a work environment, Chris. (I know you're not all named Chris, but statistically, some of you are, and you like to push boundaries. That's just math.)
There's, unfortunately, no science to writing punchlines, but there's a reason they're called punch "lines" and not punch "downs": make sure you're not kicking someone already down. Make fun of yourself or the powers that be, but don't make fun of those already struggling. It's funny when you make fun of the boss (hierarchically above you) or your coworker (hierarchically equal to you), but just mean if you make fun of a client coming to you for help. Don't be mean—people want to laugh with you and won't if the joke's at their expense.
Awareness is key for getting this right. Situate yourself and your brand in the larger landscape, and know what you can get away with. Remember, a joke is like a heist, and amateurs get arrested. Don't get arrested.
Or in this case, know thy brand. This goes along with that awareness we just discussed: know if you can break into the house you locked yourself out of, Bank of America's vault, or the Louvre and give it your all. For example, edgier brands might be able to take on political humor, but pet-brand Chewy sticks to pet humor, and I love it.
Don't step far away from your brand identity, and always convey self(brand)-awareness. Knowing your brand intimately helps you avoid both punching down and taking yourself too seriously. Having that voice in mind will also help direct your punchlines and cater to your audience—and it's all about your audience.
Now, it's time for you to get writing. Revisit your marketing personas, put on a silly hat (to get in the mood), unbutton a button (ONE, Chris), and plan your heist. Good luck, and remember to know what you can get away with. We don't have bail money.