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In-depth: Has humour taken a backseat in advertising?

One can’t help but notice that the humour in ads seems to have reduced substantially. Brands have now become less experimental and are now talking of purposeful, emotional and functional advertising

Remember the humorous commercials of Fevicol, M Seal, Mentos or Centre fresh? These ads always managed to tickle the funny bone of consumers and worked wonders for brands as well. But there aren’t too many such commercials in the last few years that one can recollect instantly.

If so successful, why doesn’t one see much of humorous advertising anymore? Are brands shying away from humour in ads?

Experts believe India’s creative industry and brands, in particular, are going through a fad of purposeful advertising. As a part of which, most leading brands want to associate themselves with a larger purpose other than selling the product. Of course, product advertising is still flourishing but it has become functional.

Is serious advertising less risky?

Is emotional and serious advertising a safer bet and less risky option for brands?

Ajay Gahlaut

Ajay Gahlaut, Chief Creative Officer and Managing Director, Publicis Worldwide India, feels brands are currently obsessed with purposeful advertising and humour doesn’t fit in really well in that narrative.

He said, “Nowadays brands are looking for a purpose, and when a brand is looking for a purpose, it tends to be sort of a serious cause. So, humour will not be the way to communicate a serious cause and that’s why more emotional and that kind of work is happening. And humour is taking a backseat.”

So, can’t a brand purpose be solved with a humorous connect? He added, “I’m sure it can. However, when you are purposeful, it’s a more serious stance that you’re taking and when you’re serious, that’s pretty much the opposite of humour. So, it’s difficult to be humorous in your communication. You can have touches of wit, I guess, but overall the tone has to be serious. Brands want to do purposeful advertising, and that’s why the campaigns take a serious connotation.”

Azazul Haque

Azazul Haque, Chief Creative Officer, Mullen Lintas India, opined, “I think it’s just a trend. Brands believe audiences connect better with emotional stories. So, it’s safer to go for the emotional route. Humour, on the other hand, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Also, there are not many brands left that use humour as their brand tonality because they believe that humour can make the brand look frivolous.”

Anil S Nair

Commenting on lack of humour in TV ads, Anil S Nair, CEO and Managing Partner, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, said, “Honestly I have seen an overall lack of interesting work on TV, not just humorous ones. I think the relative role of the medium has undergone a change. From being the prime medium of broadcast, TV has become a ‘one of the key’ mediums, with the advent of interactive mediums.”

“Also it is super expensive for many brands to ‘waste’ seconds on storytelling. We are seeing a proliferation of shorter and matter-of-fact communication. Creative agencies are still at it to make the 10 seconds and 20 seconds more creative but it has its limitations,” he believes.

Effectiveness quotient: Humourous versus emotional ads

With the dearth of humorous campaigns and upsurge of emotional campaigns, one wonders how effective are humorous campaigns as compared to emotional ones?

Gahlaut said, “It isn’t either humour or emotion; humour is also an emotion. Also, there are certain categories where it’s more impulse and humour works better. And not just impulse, there are several other categories where humour does work. Even in car advertising or big-ticket advertising, humour has worked. But it’s just that as of now, brands are struggling to find a purpose. And that’s why you’re seeing that humour is increasingly disappearing from advertising.”

It all depends on the brand’s personality and objective. “No one method of storytelling is inferior or superior to the other. The context and the campaign objective have a big role on the method utilised,” said Nair.

Haque thinks that humour is sharper and has higher clutter-breaking capabilities as compared to emotional storytelling. “Especially a shorter duration TV ad as a joke is always smaller than a long emotional story,” he said.

Brands like Fevicol, Cadbury Five Star, Perfetti have proven that in the past. ‘Dimaag Ki Batti Jala De’ ‘Shock Laga’, ‘Amazon Chonkpur Cheetahs’ and Feviquik’s ‘Chutkiyon Mein Chipkaaye’ are great examples how memorable and successful humour-based campaigns can be.

Gahlaut thinks that earlier brands were only about what they said, now brands are also about what they do. “And when brands are about what they do, it tends to become a little more purposeful and serious,” he said.

Nair clarified, “As I mentioned, there are many factors determining the advertising strategy. Look at the online portals and fintech brands. There is no study to prove emotional is riskier than humour.”

Many of the new-age brands continue to use humour to connect and engage with consumers, like Swiggy and Shopclues. Flipkart has built itself on humour.

Is lack of talent the issue?

With the reducing number of humorous campaigns, is it that there is a lack of creativity among ad agencies to execute the same?

Haque believes that to a certain extent, yes, there is a scarcity of talent in the creative departments of various agencies as well production houses to crack humour right. “There are very few creative writers and ad filmmakers left who can crack humour right. Also, humour, if not done right, can fall flat,” he explained.

Gahlaut denies. “No, of course not, it’s the same people, it’s the same talent force. Creativity exists, and in the advertising agencies, there is more than enough creativity. It takes creativity to do emotional stuff as well; it’s not as if that is easier. So whether it is humour or emotion, or more serious stuff, everything takes creativity,” he said.

Nair seconds Gahlaut’s point of view. “Absolutely not. Look at the brand videos and other snackable content on the digital medium. There is some fantastically creative work out there,” pointed out Nair.

“Since more purposeful advertising is the order of the day and more purposeful brands are the order of the day, I guess humour is taking a backseat, but I’m sure it will make a comeback very soon because it’s an important part of how human beings react and how human beings are persuaded,” Gahlaut appended.

Do emotional ads deliver better ROI than humorous ads?

With the depletion in humorous advertisements, is it that clients and the audience don’t like humour in advertising?

“I’m sure everyone likes humour. But in terms of advertising, as I said, it depends on what the task is,” said Gahlaut.

“Yes, the audience loves humour. But it is about what is appropriate as a tone of voice for the brand. I’m not sure if humour has gone out of advertising, it is still there, humour is a very important part of the human condition. Maybe at one time, there was more, now it is a little less because more purposeful work is taking over,” he opined.

“Everyone loves a joke and you get plenty of it on WhatsApp today,” said Nair.

Haque thinks that audiences will always love humour as a tool of entertainment. “Stand-up comedies and humorous funny videos get viral more than emotional stories. Clients, on the other hand, have off late started resisting humour as a brand tone. Most believe it might make the brand frivolous or non-serious. But the fact is that audiences have always loved humour as much as they have loved emotional human stories,” he added.

According to a study by the Asian Journal of Marketing, emotional advertising leads to better purchase-related decisions. However, humour works very well in brand recall.

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