Mocking or Mean? When Ads Go Too Far to Be Funny

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Mocking or Mean? When Ads Go Too Far to Be Funny

One of the most common creative approaches in advertising is making fun of someone or something.

When it’s on point, an ad that mocks can engage and entertain. But when it goes too far, it feels mean, unsettling the audience and casting the marketer in a bad light.

How do you know when funny goes too far in advertising? Here are five tips for developing a creative approach for your smart marketing strategy that mocks without being mean.

The Line between Comedy and Cruelty

Saturday Night Live has created many classic “ads” that mock people and products. Remember Mom Jeans for women who’ve gained weight after having kids?

Everyone laughs at Mom Jeans because the “ad” is really funny. But that kind of cutting humor, which is fine in comedy, can backfire in advertising and marketing.

DirectTV ads offer up nightmarish scenarios resulting from viewers’ dissatisfaction with cable. The most recent ad depicts a viewer so frustrated he takes up hang gliding, which ultimately results in his elderly father getting punched in the stomach over a can of soup in a grocery store that’s being looted. The campaign concept is deliberately ridiculous, but the conclusion of the ad is very mean. Did they have to hurt the dad? adds a mean twist in its new ad showing a Kayak user commandeering his aging mother’s stair lift while he searches for cheap hotels on his laptop. As he smoothly ascends the stairs, his mother struggles to climb the steps on her own. What image sticks in your mind after an ad like this? Or the old woman who’s about to fall and break a hip?

Or how about the new “framily” (friends and family) ad from Sprint? The ad has a Modern Family vibe, with a family and friends gathering in front of a camera as they join together to share a discount phone plan. It’s fine until the account holder, who has added his fantasy football league to his “framily,” decides to eject one member he doesn’t like, Jerry. He then adds Jerry back in and they exchange angry glances.

What’s memorable about this ad? Maybe it’s the discounts, but it’s also the sting of rejection. While a fantasy football league isn’t exactly a close-knit group, this ad reminds you of every time you found out that people you thought were your friends don’t really like you. Ouch.

5 Rules for Mocking without Being Mean in Advertising

As a marketing consultant, I believe you can be funny in advertising by mocking people or products without being mean-spirited.

Here are five tips for your smart marketing strategy:

  1. Leave Grandma out of it: Don’t mock vulnerable people like the elderly or any other group of people who may have a deficiency or weakness that’s not their fault. [br] [br]
  2. Turn the tables: Make fun of people who make fun of others, like bullies and snobs. Everyone likes to see mean people get their comeuppance. This great spot from Hyundai not only puts a bunch of bullies in their place but positions the product and its user – the Hyundai Santa Fe and the smart mom who drives it – as the way to do it. [br]

  3. Mock people whose over-the-top persona begs ridicule: DirecTV’s Football on Your Phone ad brilliantly makes fun of rappers whose bling and bravura invites parody. This ad mocks, but no one gets hurt. I’ll bet even rappers laughed along with the joke. [br] [br]
  4. Make fun of yourself: When the joke’s on you, it shows you have a sense of humor and you’re confident enough to use it. Cheez-Its ads make fun of the product’s core ingredient, cheese that’s not mature enough to become a cracker. [br] [br]
  5. Make fun of competitors – nicely: Where’s the Beef? is a classic example of how to contrast your product with all the other sub-par products in your category by making fun of them. The slam by Wendy’s on Burger King and McDonald’s is delivered by a sweet bunch of old ladies who ask an obvious question in a funny way. It doesn’t feel mean, because it isn’t. But be aware that even mildly critical competitive ads now can cause issues with broadcasters. Fox just rejected SodaStream’s Super Bowl ad for its brief mention of Coke and Pepsi.

A Final Smart Marketing Strategy Tip: Keep Your Brand in Mind

Emotions drive purchasing decisions and brand choices. You want prospects to associate your brand with positive emotions that make them feel good. An ad that’s deliberately cutting for the sake of comedy could have the opposite effect.

When your marketing agency presents a creative approach for your next marketing campaign that makes fun of something or someone, ask yourself how the ad will make people feel about your brand. If there’s a mean streak behind the creative concept that makes you feel uncomfortable, trust your instincts.

Which ads do you think go too far on the meanness continuum? Share your examples.

  • David Hunter

    I thought the kayak ad was going to be for a chair lift. After watching it twice, I still think it’s for a chair lift. ha

    Great list of Smart Marketing Strategies!

    January 28, 2014 at 10:08 pm
  • David Hunter

    You’re right. The ad is not focused on the product at all. Show the elderly woman struggling up the stairs without a chairlift in the house, then show her going up the stairs on the chair lift and you have a perfect chairlift ad. I still don’t know how that ad was for Kayak.
    Oh, and the name… Kayak. The first thing I think of is the website is for kayaks. ha

    January 29, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    Mocking or Mean? When Ads Go Too Far to Be Funny

    October 7, 2015 at 2:26 pm
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