Humor in Marketing: Good Idea? Bad Idea? BOTH!

Written by: Jesse Draham

Knock Knock! 

“Who’s there?” 


“Hugh who?” 

Hugh-mor in marketing!

Much like many attempts at jokes in advertising, that one was quite the stinker. 

But when done right, a funny ad or post can be a great way to get eyes on your business that otherwise may have never even noticed your brand. One report by Oracle found that 90% of people believe they’re more likely to remember funny ads than serious ones and that 72% of people would choose a humorous brand over the competition. 

Despite this, only 20% of brands report using humor in offline ads and 18% report using the tactic in online ads. Why would companies avoid such a proven profit booster?


Being funny isn’t easy! And when it backfires, it backfires BIG TIME.

As a digital marketer who moonlights as a comedian (in other words, a comedian who’s not good enough to be a professional at it 🥲), I feel more than qualified to lay out the Do’s, Don’t’s, and Greatest Hits of humor in advertising!

A Priest Walks Into a Bar. He Says “Ouch!” – When Humor Works Best

Be Cute

Got an adorable dog, cat, or baby? Use them! As internet memes have shown us, precocious small cuteness can be used very effectively to get a smile and an “Awww” out of a future customer. Charmin Toilet Paper has used a family of cute bears for their mascots for almost ten years. What do these bears do? They wiggle their butts, they make turns of phrase, and somehow all their problems are solved by Charmin brand toilet paper. In reality, the notion of a family that only discusses pooping is quite disturbing, whether they be anthropomorphic bears or not. Regardless, cutesy has been enough to keep them on our TVs and computers for many many years.

Keep It Simple

Every marketer has at one time or another had a clueless client that has asked, “Can you make me some viral content?” If anyone could conjure viral material at will, the advertising industry would pay them enough to have a wardrobe consisting solely of solid gold pants.

Going viral isn’t easy, but you don’t have to reach that level of exposure to make a positive impression. Keep it simple. Use puns whenever possible! Yes, they’re cheesy, but they WORK and quickly work their way into people’s memories. Think, “Give me a break of that Kit Kat Bar”, or “Shave Time, Shave Money” for Dollar Shave Club. Chris Rock or Nate Bargatze would not be closing their shows out with those jokes. But they’re good enough to get a slight smile and happy memory for someone who’s looking for a product or service like the one you’re offering.

Take Risks / Be Weird

As we’ll discuss further at the end of this article, some of the biggest success stories of humor in advertising from the 21st century were not only funny, they were also downright odd at first. From Old Spice’s surreal Tim & Eric directed ads to an entire pantheon of GEICO characters and motifs, these strange approaches often had absolutely nothing to do with their specific product. It didn’t matter. They were funny, and memorable, and that was all it took to get customers in the door with their hard earned dollar.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: When To AVOID Humor at All Costs


Unless your client base is explicitly political or definitively homogenous in their beliefs, political jokes should be avoided entirely. If your business is gun holsters or hemp iPhone covers, you probably know your base well enough to crack a political joke without offending. Otherwise, you’ll probably be alienating somebody with your post about “Our prices are lower than Congress’s approval ratings!”

*The Whig Party has been gone long enough to be safely made fun of. Feel free to take as many shots at President Millard Fillmore as you like.

Current Events / Tragic News

Every year there seems to be some business going viral for all the wrong reasons for hosting a “9/11 Sale” or trying to tap into current events like COVID or protests. They try to be clever and wink-wink-nudge about it. It doesn’t work. The deaths of real flesh and blood people shouldn’t be joked about, no matter how fantastic your Buy One Get One deals are.


You may be noticing a pattern. Each of these entries focuses on things that affect people very personally.

Health, Race, and Religion, are all incredibly sensitive topics that impact people in dramatic fashion. Even the most innocent religious joke may leave a bad taste for somebody whose parents no longer speak to them for leaving the family faith. Race, much like politics, is almost impossible to discuss without offending somebody. Poor personal, physical, or mental health can ruin somebody’s life, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to maintain or repair.

Any positive reaction you could achieve by joking about these topics would be an exception to the rule.

Greatest Hits


These guys changed the game when it came to insurance advertising by livening up a very stodgy industry with some of the most hilarious, out of the box, memorable commercials of all time. When people think “GEICO”, they don’t think about premiums and claims adjustment. They think of Geckos, Cavemen, and little piggies screaming “WHEE!”. Since then we’ve seen competitors up their games with the Liberty Mutual “Limu Emu”, Jake from State Farm, and even opposition advertising from NJM Insurance group, who are SO against the idea of fun, their ads have stated that NJM stands for “No Jingles or Mascots”.

Wendy’s Twitter

You’d think that fast food social media may be boring. But then one day, Wendy’s Twitter account started acting a little…different.

How different?

Well, they started insulting McDonald’s and their frozen beef patties at every turn. Telling customers to leave their partners if they preferred Burger King. Challenging Chik-Fil-A to a fist fight after school closed. 

These interactions regularly ended up shared on social media and getting reported on in articles, each time adding exponential exposure to the long-running fast food chain.


“You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

The perfect entryway to show such configurations as a surly Betty White playing football, Danny Trejo as Marsha from The Brady Bunch, and even bringing Joe Pesci out of retirement to angrily flirt at a party, Snickers’ ad campaign is the perfect mashup of humor and celebrity appearances.

By deliberately playing against type and dipping their toe into a strange area barely related to candy at all, Snickers stayed in the zeitgeist and continues each year to be one of the most popular candy bars on the market.

Nihilist Arby’s

Okay, so this one isn’t real. But if Nihilist Arby’s was an actual restaurant, I’d spend every moment of my meaningless existence there just to support their brilliant Twitter account. 

Brilliant. Genius. Salted Meat. Arby’s. Oblivion.



So, if you want to make a difference to your agency or client, sharpen up your humor skills a little bit!

Watch funny movies.

Write down absurd thoughts as they come.

Or, go down to your local comedy club and steal a comedian’s bit!

You can’t copyright jokes, you know. Comedians get no respect!

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