Does Humor Sell?

by Mordechai (Morty) Schiller


All the copywriting experts warn: Don't use humor in advertising!

The grandfather of modern advertising, Claude Hopkins, said:

    Don't treat your subject lightly. Don't lessen respect for your self or your article by any attempt at frivolity. People do not patronize a clown. There are two things about which men should not joke. One is business, one is home. An eccentric picture may do you serious damage. One may gain attention by wearing a fools cap. But he would ruin his selling prospects.

The great John Caples said

    Avoid humor. You can entertain a million people and not sell one of them. There is not a single humorous line in two of the most influential books in the world, namely, the Bible and the Sears Roebuck catalog.

This is good advice to follow. Funny ads run a very real risk of confusing or, worse—offending—your customers and prospects. So, stick to the straight and narrow: Appeal to benefits, reason-why copy, and, most important, a solid offer. And don't try to be funny.

Now that I've satisfied all the purists, let me say, at the risk of my own reputation as a No-Nonsense Copywriter, it ain't necessarily so.

As Schiller says, "People don't buy from sourpusses."

Uh-oh! Now I've gone and done it. My sixth-grade teacher is for sure going to say "I always knew that Schiller was a wise guy!" But, let me say in my own defense: I'm not advocating being a comedian. I haven't forgotten: "Advertising is salesmanship in print." And, "It's not creative unless it sells."

Yes, you're writing to sell NOT to entertain. But, in catalogs, in direct mail packages, in ads, in print or online, often a light humorous touch adds an element of humanity that engages and involves the reader and actually gives you more credibility.

We're all familiar with funny commercials. But direct marketers have (wisely) shied away from humor. Or at least from outright comedy.

BUT... wouldn't you rather walk into a store where the owner is smiling? It immediately makes you feel more relaxed and appreciated. And more likely to buy.

Friendliness also works online. For all their power on Wall Street, Google honchos still keep up their chummy "just a couple of geeks from Stanford," image. Who else has error messages that begin "Oops ..." and ever-changing humorous logos? (I have no doubt that this geeky image even helps them smooth over foul-ups like service outages on Gmail and!)


David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, says

    Most marketing and communications programs from business-to-business software and technology companies are dreadfully dry and painfully boring. I mean if some of these companies tried to smile at themselves, their screens would crack. But guess what? Your buyers, no matter what sort of organization you work for, are people—real people with a sense of fun—not nameless, faceless, corporate drones. Sometimes a bit of the unusual and funny can work wonders.

I once had an assignment to write an ad for a unique "prayer times" clock that gave the precise time of sunrise and sunset anywhere in the world. The punctilious client wanted me to treat it "strictly kosher": emphasizing its practical religious benefits. I tried to convince him that—even among religious Jews—his zealous precision was not necessarily shared by a wide market. I insisted that this was an executive toy, and the only way to sell it was with some humor.

We finally compromised (usually a bad solution, but thank Heaven, in this case win-win). He got his practical benefits and I got my light touch. The results? The entire inventory was sold out!

Advertising icon David Ogilvy said "Claude Hopkins book Scientific Advertising changed the course of my life." And he never forgot Hopkins' sermon: "Ad writers forget they are salesmen and try to be performers. Instead of sales, they seek applause."

But writing about "How to make TV commercials that sell," Ogilvy said,

    Conventional wisdom has always held they people buy products because they believe them to be nutritious, or labor-saving, or good value for money--not because the manufacturer tells jokes on television.... I think this was true in Hopkins's  day, and I have reason to believe that it remained true until recently, but the latest wave of factor-analysis reveals that humor can now sell.... But I must warn you that very, very few writers can write funny commercials which are funny. Unless you are one of the few, don't try.


Bottom line: Use humor if—and only if:

 You use it to reinforce and support your basic promise.
 You use it to be friendly, not funny.
 You use it to attract, not to distract.
 You NEVER lose sight of what you're really doing: selling.

So don't clown around. But smile when you sell that!


© 2001-2008 Mordechai (Morty) Schiller

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