Having A Laugh In Advertising

Deconstructing humour isn’t funny. Certainly, no joke was ever made funnier by explaining it. “Let me tell you why that’s funny,” might even be a prelude to getting punched in the kisser at a pub. But getting to the heart of what makes things funny is at the centre of human behaviour, and human behaviour – in all its complexity and nuance – is at the centre of how we can and should approach marketing and advertising.

While that may sound complex, and perhaps a bit circuitous, it all makes sense when described by Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather Group UK. For an advertising executive, Sutherland has a sharp wit, and during Advertising Week Europe he and comic Jimmy Carr are out to explain why the intricacies of humour can uncover more about human behaviour, and how we approach marketing, than might have been previously thought. It goes deeper than laughs, for sure.


“I was at the Hay Festival a few years ago, and Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize-winning psychologist) was asked, ‘is there such thing as a System 1 business?’ And he said, ‘yes, advertising.’ Then he paused for a bit and said, ‘and politics.’”

System 1 is a concept taken from Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow which describes mental processes as being automatic, instinctive, fast, biased to believe and confirm, and that exaggerates emotional consistency. This is the contrast to System 2, which is slow, rational and logical.

“In a sense, comedy is the ultimate System 1 business,” said Sutherland. “There are limits to the extent that you can actually make sense of it, in that although you can decode a joke afterward, that doesn’t mean there’s any formula for generating them. But equally, there are some forms of humor that defy categorization.”

Sutherland goes on to explain how humour can be tricky. “It’s very execution-dependent, like advertising, in that you can take the world’s funniest joke but if you get the wrong person to tell it, it’s not remotely amusing. And that’s a strange thing, and that’s also what makes researching ads very difficult. I think it was Bill Bernbach who said, ‘how do you storyboard a smile?’ Because when you strive it or storyboard it, it doesn’t capture any of the kind of charm or self-realisation that allows the thing to work.”

Sutherland thinks there are many reasons we in the advertising industry should be interested in humour, another being that it works with human emotions, which we don’t fully understand.

“Most decision making, and behaviour, is mostly emotional,” explained Sutherland.

“There are quite a lot of people, myself among them, who would regard living a completely humour-less life as almost intolerable. And yet, at the same time, something which is so important to life is understood very little.”

Sutherland sees that the advertising and marketing work that resonates the most is steeped in nuance, and that comes from behavioural clues, not dialogue.

“In a sense, our brains work through inference rather than through conventional communications. So, in a weird way I suppose the brain doesn’t really have a sense of proportion. If you’re a poker player, the way you read other people isn’t by what they overtly say, it’s by the subtle gestures. If someone says very blatantly, ‘I have a great hand here,’ that information’s almost useless. Whereas if you notice the slightest little twitch – I think they call it a tell – it’s actually very important. And, of course, a large part of human perception is like that. In fact we’re attaching much more importance to the tiny little things.”

Sutherland is big on examples of how these concepts of human behaviour manifest themselves in real life, which helps explain why we do what we do, and also why marketing is, at times, a bizarre animal.

One of those comes from his comic friend Carr, who wrote a book with Lucy Greaves called The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes, where he looks at the evolutionary origins of humour. “He makes a point that he thinks that it’s a bit like sexuality in that you don’t really have any choice of the sense of humour you’re born with,” exclaimed Sutherland.

“In a weird kind of way, if you have a slightly sick or distasteful sense of humour you will just find that funny; if you have a slightly mean sense of humour, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t really educate your sense of humour; it’s just there. I don’t know if there’s any research into this,” he added with a laugh.

Sutherland often goes well beyond humour to analyze behaviour, citing everything from System 1 and career longevity (“if people know you’ve done something great three times, you’re allowed to fail the fourth”) to how markets compare to plant life (“they’re much more organic, what you might call complex adaptive systems, than they are to machinery”) to diversity quotas (“you don’t intervene directly in the thing you wish to affect; what you instead do is that you change the condition slightly so that the mode of behaviour you want to encourage becomes natural in any case”).

Sutherland’s many opinions on psychology and how it ties into marketing means he is always searching for how to best combine them to reach greater marketing heights.


“This is how it always works: business always gets to places first, through a kind of process of accidents, tinkering, instincts, intuition and so on. And then what business people fail to do is properly codify what it is they’ve found…It bothers me how little influence marketing thinking has outside the marketing function,” he says.

So, Sutherland has designed for himself a decidedly un-humouristic challenge, one that leans more towards the rigours of academia than trying to land the next big campaign.

“If you start to design the world from a position which respects System 1, what happens? That’s my big question. The world’s been designed by accountants, engineers, mechanistic economists. What actually happens if you start to design the world around the way people feel, think and act, rather than the way they’re ‘supposed to?’ That’s the challenge for my remaining working years, to ask the question. In fact, the kind of talent you find within an ad agency, particularly if allied to some academics who understand the papers and the academic rigor, we can use this stuff to change the world.”

Sutherland can go on at length about human behaviour and its ties to advertising and marketing, and how we’re not making the connections we should between the hard sciences and ‘softer’ sciences, but to re-address his points on humour, in his own words:

“If you ask someone to imagine moving to a culture where there was genuinely no humour at all, most of us would find that almost impossible.”


Indeed, to paraphrase Steve Martin from his old stand-up act; comedy is not pretty, but it is essential.

Don’t miss Rory Sutherland and Jimmy Carr at Advertising Week Europe on 25 March at 12:00PM. Register before 6 March to take advantage of early rates.
First Appeared on Ad Week Social Club blog

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