Television Advertising? You Are Having a Laugh

What is a pirate’s favourite marketing metric?

Aaaarrrrr O  I.

Marketing is a serious business. Damn tough. And these are tough times. But the best way to cope with imgoingtokillthenextpersonwhoasksmetodoANYTHING is to laugh. It is dangerous only in exceptional circumstances.

Every year Thinkbox’s ‘TV Nation’ survey asks the British public about their media behaviour and attitudes. This year we also conducted a survey called ‘Ad Nation’ among professionals like you, working in media and marketing.

When we asked Ad Nation professionals what they were most proud of about Britain, it wasn’t the NHS or our values or (with shameful modesty), the advertising industry. Your top answer was ‘our sense of humour’. And that’s hardly surprising; a national survey by Ipsos MORI last year found that ‘Good sense of humour’ ranked #1 as the best characteristic of the British people, ahead of ‘Friendly’ and ‘Tolerant’.

(Click on charts to enlarge them).


And a love of humour was a theme that ran through TV Nation as well. Asked what makes a successful TV ad, ‘makes me laugh’ came top by the proverbial mile.


This topic matters for us at Thinkbox, because when it comes to adverts that make us laugh, only television seems to succeed. Media types and the general public don’t always agree, but on this they joyously concur:


Humour has long been a characteristic of British TV advertising and the quality seems to be more prized than ever – recent campaigns such as Marmite’s ‘End Marmite Neglect’ , Aldi’s ads and the ongoing Specsavers ads are carrying on the tradition, although some feel that there is not enough humour around these days.

But why is humour uniquely associated with TV commercials? Because TV is the most social of media – we watch with others and laugh together. And there’s something particularly British about it too. We are famously shy about inviting strangers into our homes – the living room is a sacred room for intimates only. And TV advertisers in the UK have always been aware that, as honoured guests, they have to sugar their sales pitch with a delicate touch…. dancing ponies, Kevin Bacon talking about donkeys, comb-overed men in phone-booths, chimpanzees shifting furniture, and characters that we enjoy seeing again and again.

And we know that the jokes aren’t distracting us from the business of being effective. The IPA’s recent and magnificent ‘Advertising Effectiveness: the long and short of it’ publication illustrates the point: creative campaigns that tap into our emotions and get us talking are far more effective in driving business effects such as sales and profit than any other. Laughter is one of the best creative paths.

But not the only one. We also asked media executives where they might find adverts that make them cry or feel emotional. 73% said TV commercials, compared with just 4% with advertising on websites (second most popular was radio, with 11%).

You might imagine that funny commercials would jar in the middle of a heavy drama or documentary. They don’t. There is something about our relaxed state when watching TV that makes humour work best. We know that likeability is a powerful attraction to brands. Who else makes us laugh and cry? The people we love and people we like. So we reward brands that manage the same very difficult trick. And that’s not a British thing, it’s universal.

A brand manager, an econometrician and a marketing procurement specialist walk into a bar.
They have a hilarious evening.

  • Adam

    Interesting article. And it’s a good question about ads that made you laugh recently that weren’t on TV. The last print ad that made me laugh was this one:

    Background: the Spring Racing Carnival in Melbourne, Australia is a big deal – “the race that stops a nation”. It attracts many “once a year punters”.

    I think this solution ticks all 8 boxes in your second slide: it’s funny, thought-provoking, creative, informative, relevant, detailed, inspiring and on-brand.

    But it was not on TV.