“Your sense of humour is like your sexuality,” says Jimmy Carr. “You don’t choose what turns you on, and you don’t choose what makes you laugh.” That involuntary emotional response is the sweet spot that all advertisers aim for, but a bafflingly small number of ads go for laughs.
In conversation with Ogilvy Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland, Carr discussed how in 2015, marketers often can’t do right for doing wrong. There is considerable pressure from right-wing censors on what is inappropriate to say, and equal heat from left-wing liberals on what may or may not be considered insensitive or offensive. Social media has yielded a new phenomenon; “synthetic outrage”, where commentators take grievance with something in an abstract fashion, whether that be to signal their political leanings or to arrogantly speak on the behalf of a marginalised group.
It can take as little as one complaint to get an ad taken off the air. As a result, advertisers are left with a narrow no man’s land, where there is very little wiggle-room when it comes to showing personality. “There’s an element of corporate cowardice,” says Sutherland, “where if you say something interesting, it will offend somebody somewhere, and now that somebody has a platform, be it Twitter or Facebook, to express their outrage… Which is ridiculous as advertising is known for having a culture where you can say something stupid and get a promotion.”
Carr himself comes from an ad background; he would work in an agency by day and do stand-up gigs by night. So he understands that getting a funny ad out into the world is a massive achievement in itself, due to the numerous stages of sign-off and excess of analysis involved. Conversely, he says his feedback loop is instantaneous: “I say something on stage, and if people don’t laugh, I say something else.”
Speaking about his own creative process, Carr says that always looking for joke material is actually also a lovely way to look at the world. Apparently, succeeding in finding the funny side of a dark or depressing news story can put you in a good mood for the rest of the day. And if someone finds that joke offensive? “You either believe in freedom of speech or you don’t.”
So what can advertisers do, asks Sutherland, to bring humour back into their campaigns and get consumers to engage? Carr answers the question with another question:“Why don’t agencies hire comedians to work on their funny ads?” The silence in the room is palpable, and it is immediately evident that this simple, obvious solution has never occurred to anyone. “It makes perfect sense,” agrees Sutherland, “after all, we hire musical talent to create music for our campaigns.” Remember this moment, people. Advertising Week Europe 2015 might just go down in history as the point in time where Jimmy Carr disrupted an entire industry.