I had to attend a wedding last week.
It wasn’t a shotgun wedding or anything — it wasn’t even me getting married. But I was the best man, so it would have been a little weird if I didn’t show up.
Right before my toast, one of the groomsmen, with the sunburnt look of a guy who hasn’t consumed alcohol in a while, proposed a toast.
I say “proposed,” but what I really mean is that he held a room full of people hostage with a champagne glass. I’ve never really been a fan of this guy and, I mean, he interrupted my toast — which I’d agonized over all night — so, I was happy when he started bombing.
But that quickly faded…
✋ Before we get to the juicy part of this story, for your sense of security, here’s the big question we’re covering today:
How do I use humor in copywriting? To successfully use humor in copywriting, you need to be trustworthy, likable and relatable to your audience. In order to achieve these three things, you need to know…
- The purpose of copy
- Why be funny in your copy
- Why the medium matters in comedic writing
- 5 keys to using humor in marketing copy
And before we get too far…
To successfully use humor in marketing copy, understand these 5 keys:
- Comedy takes risks
- Comedy has a point of view
- Comedy is polarizing
- Comedy is vulnerable
- Comedy tells truth
Alright, alright. Back to the story.
Stop Making Cringey Copy (& Wedding Toasts)
Have you ever had that feeling when somebody is so painfully unfunny it physically hurts you to listen to them?
The Germans probably have a word for it — something with too many consonants, like unzureichendkitzelnwörter — the feeling that makes you cringe as nobody laughs at some oblivious try-hard with a name like “Blaine” or “Taggart.”
As the groomsman droned on, awash in unzureichendkitzelnwörter, I realized how often I’ve experienced that pain.
Usually, it’s when I read company copy that tries to be funny. Your copy induces unzureichendkitzelnwörter.
Your copy sucks. But it doesn’t have to.
[HEAR/READ: Here’s a 5-part framework for using humor in B2B marketing that every marketer needs.]
Humor in Marketing Copy: The Purpose of Copy
OK, this might actually be an example of bad copy, since I’ve decided to start with the mind-numbingly boring, chloroform-in-print, lick-a-9-volt-battery-just-to-remind-you-you’re-alive aspect of this article.
But it’s pretty important, so super glue your eyelids open and pound a Red Bull (or take a shot… no judgments here).
Do you copy?
You can probably find fancier definitions, but I’ll keep it simple.
What is copy? Copy is any text your company produces — digital or print — that gets published (i.e. shown to the public).
So, by this definition, a written apology for all those exploding cell phones your company seemingly created to make people afraid of flying again is considered copy.
The threatening Post-It notes that cite your state’s stand-your-ground laws that Lorraine from accounting labels her food with, though thorough and evocative, are not.
In this article, we’re going to look specifically at advertising and marketing copy — mostly because I doubt you’re here because your boss demands funnier tech specs in your product manual.
Make people do your bidding
There’s a reason you hire people with expensive posters on their wall that they insist on calling “communications degrees” to write your marketing copy.
It’s not that you pity them for the terrible career choices they’ve made, it’s that you want to create copy that persuades readers to take action.
Buying a product, writing a review or entering an email address into a form — these are the kinds of actions you want your customers to perform.
It’s no easy task, either. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of competing voices screaming at your audience to take other actions.
So, if you want to persuade them, you need to stand out enough to be heard… or read… or whatever…
The point is, even if you grab someone’s attention for a few moments, you need to actually be persuasive.
Most copy couldn’t persuade Owen Wilson to say “wow.” Most copy sucks.
Humor in Marketing Copy: So… Why Be Funny in Copy?
There are a lot of ways to be persuasive, but all of them require capturing someone’s attention — which, in most cases, means activating an emotional response in the person.
Traditionally, these emotional responses have been how marketers turned attention into action.
That’s why animal charities make you suffer through commercials filled with sorrow that seem to go on for years. 🐶 If they make you sad enough, you might donate. Even if only in the vain hope that it’ll keep you from ever having to hear that song again. (It won’t.)
That’s probably too cynical, but you get the point: Traditional marketing grabs your attention, makes you emotional and then seeks to turn that emotion into action.
[HEAR: These are 4 more benefits of using humor in B2B from a moderately funny dude.]
Fear convinces you to vote against a political candidate, buy organic food or build a bomb shelter in the unwavering certainty that Des Moines will fall in the opening salvo of WWIII.
Hope sells weight-loss pills and “AI-powered solutions” that promise to solve every company problem.
Curiosity turns gated content into email addresses; envy fuels your sports car purchase; boredom increases clickbait potency and, therefore, clicks.
Essentially, marketing copy used to revolve around picking one of the 7 dwarfs and figuring out how to use that emotion to persuade a reader to take an action.
Well, except for Sneezy. I’m pretty sure even the most ruthless marketer at Claritin can’t get buy-in on his nefarious plot to make people sneezy.
Humor hacks the human brain
Marketing has changed in recent years and engagement is more important than attention. I’ll leave the explanation behind this shift to more capable marketing minds.
But, here’s the simple version:
These days, it’s not enough to just capture someone’s attention: Your audience must trust you, like you and relate to you.
And humor is one of the best ways to accomplish all three. Humor is a shortcut for connecting with other people.
It’s powerful enough to bypass the social defenses of a goth cradling a Sylvia Plath book.🖤 If you find something funny, you can’t help but laugh.
Comedy is like music: People relate to people who share their sense of humor. If you can make someone laugh, they have no choice but to give you the password to their secret clubhouse.
Also, it’s really hard to hate someone who makes you laugh — there’s a reason my girlfriend is better looking, smarter and much higher on the list of potential human emissaries for an alien arrival than I am.
And I’m pretty sure it’s not because of the sweet writer’s salary I’m raking in.
It’s because — even if you think I’m painfully unfunny — I can make her laugh.
Side note: Our lawyers inform me I’m contractually obligated to disclose that my pay is more than reasonable given I admitted on my resume that I hold a liberal arts degree. 😅
Humor in Marketing Copy: The Medium Matters
Before we get to why exactly companies aren’t funny, I have a digression to make.
I think, technically, this is a digression from a digression, so maybe it cancels out. I don’t know — I was never good at math… which is probably why I’m writing this.
Anyway, it’s important, so reapply the superglue.
William S. Burrows wants you to buy a bike
If you’re using humor to build your brand and offset the fact you sell something as boring and legally mandated as car insurance, then TV commercials filled with talking geckos, ice-skating Sumo wrestlers and tech-savvy antelope work.
They stand out, subvert your expectations and ooze personality — all by making you laugh.
But try that approach in text.
Yeah, you’ve creeped out your reader with content that reads like some Kafka fever dream. Instead of crafting relatable copy, you’ve sent out more red flags than the Chinese Embassy’s Party-Planning Committee.
For the most part, this is intuitive. You should be well aware that this kind of copy isn’t going to help you get leads before the protagonist has sprouted wings and antennae.
If you aren’t a fan of crazy Russians obsessed with insects and the DMV and don’t get the reference — just be aware that some things don’t work in print.
For the most part, you lose comedic timing, sight gags are impossible unless you have the emoji skills of a high-school prom queen and it’s much harder to make someone laugh with a fart. 💩
Thesauruses should require a license
No one cares about your scrabble skills.
So, I’m begging you: Please, just write like a human.
I’m not sure what happens in the human brain that makes people turn into pretentious, thesaurus-wielding sentient fedoras when they start typing, but knock it off.
Unless your ideal buyer is your 8th grade English teacher or you are selling haunted Teddy bears that have fallen on hard times, your copy shouldn’t contain the words phantasmagorical, hirsute or disconsolate.
Disrupt was a good name for a mediocre punk band…
And, for the most part, avoid industry jargon or corporate speak.
Honestly, you should probably just stop using either in any context. But I’m not a therapist, guru or life coach, so I’ll stick with copy.
[HEAR: Your cold outreaches could use some work. This might make them better.]
No one wants to read copy from the B2B tech bro who has never seen a sentence that couldn’t be improved by the word “disruptive” or the corporate cliche-generator spouting off phrases that even the cast of Mad Men would side-eye.
Yeah, let’s not “open the kimono.”
If a tech startup launches a product and no one from marketing is around to call it disruptive, did it ever really launch? 👀
Context is key
Finally, it’s important to note that you also must consider how your copy is being consumed.
If I sent you this blog post as a cold email, you would rightly smash that block button in record speed. For email, you want pithy and to-the-point.
Likewise, if this blog post was just a gif of a cat wearing a sombrero with the caption “be funnier” in pink comic sans, it probably wouldn’t be very valuable to you or the Google algorithm.
Similarly, humor isn’t for every business.
I mean, let’s say you’re a mortician. Sure, you and your sullen colleagues might get a kick out of the slapstick gold a live-action (dead-action?)💀 Weekend at Bernie’s homage is sure to provide, but your clients will likely see it differently.
For the same reason the animal charity chose a maudlin ballad over the BeeGees, you should probably take a different approach than humor.
If your customers require seriousness, high-level technical expertise or graciousness and empathy, jokes are likely not the best approach.
For example, I probably shouldn’t be writing jokes about being bad at math as a financial advisor. But, for those of us whose services are a little less macabre or unable to wipe out someone’s retirement, funny is a fantastic approach.
5 Keys for Using Humor in Marketing Copy
Alright, so there are a ton of benefits for companies who create humorous copy.
But if you can better engage your audience, and ultimately increase your revenue, then why isn’t every company funny? There are several reasons.
1. Comedy takes risks
This is the biggest hurdle for most companies.
Sure, companies take calculated risks all the time, but they are usually just the cost of doing business.
But many types of humor rely on taking things to the edge of what polite society finds acceptable — and finding that line means occasionally stepping over it. This is pretty dangerous for a company that just wants everyone to love them.
Especially in an age when Twitter mobs sharpen their digital pitchforks over the slightest whiff of offensiveness.
And the guys and gals in your company whose jobs depend on them not setting fire to stacks of cash might worry about coming up with the dough for semi-annual apology tours.
This fear leads to some atrocious crimes against humor. 😬 Many brands end up settling on unfunny, cringeworthy meta-jokes because they are inoffensive.
Consider another car insurance company, let’s call them “Forward-Thinking Insurance.” Realizing that they were completely incapable of topping the humor of non-smoking camels celebrating Wednesdays, they decided to go in the complete opposite direction. They’ve created a whole world of unfunny complete with recurring unfunny characters like… let’s just call her “Dribble.”
As far as I can tell, their marketing strategy was devised by a Rocky and Bullwinkle villain whose nefarious plan involves waterboarding our collective sense of humor until the ennui and existential angst leads to comprehensive coverage nationwide.
Yeah, you know the commercials I’m talking about. After seeing three of them, I reversed my old uninsured Pinto into a wall as fast as the car could handle — a raucous 27 mph — out of spite.
Don’t be like Forward-Thinking Insurance.
Sure, you can rally solidarity in your audience by getting them to collectively groan against a bad pun. But honestly, it’s usually just irritating.
I’m not saying you need to become a sleazy lounge-act insult comic, but you can branch out from dad-jokes and anti-humor.
If you want to reap the rewards humor can offer your brand, you need to factor in risk the same way you would for any other company endeavor.
2. Comedy has a point of view
If you knew anything about comedy before reading this, it’s probably this:
Comedy by committee is never funny.
Nothing can suck the life out of copy faster than submitting it to a DMV-like structure where bureaucrats pick apart every syllable before sending it to the next drone — along with the mandatory DD107-42B forms carefully filled out — for them to repeat the process.
You need a point of view to be funny, not the advice of counsel.
And really, your company should have a mission and a vision, which inherently gives it a point of view, so long as someone can actually articulate your purpose.
But in reality, many companies are only guided by profit. I won’t dwell on this because it’s beyond the scope of this article…
But if your company is based solely on the greed of some fleshy, cigar-smoking monopoly guy who has no vision beyond filling his limo’s jacuzzi with $100 bills, orphans and sea turtles be damned, it’s going to be hard to be funny — or relatable in any way at all, really.
So, think about what your mission is.
If you sell a tech solution allowing other companies to go paperless, it stands to reason that your point of view frowns upon clear-cutting the rainforest.
You need to stand for something.
Which brings us to the next problem companies face when trying to be funny…
3. Comedy is polarizing
An iron rule of business and life: You can’t be all things to all people. But so many companies try to be just that.
Take the rainforest example from before. If someone in your company is overly concerned about the Amazon Logger demographic, then there goes any point of view you had.
No, not like that. Don’t give him ideas.
The truth is, comedy often relies on a villain.
“What’s the deal with airline food?” only works as a setup if you agree that airline food should be tarred, feathered and publicly shunned.
But some people have dedicated whole careers to making that food. They probably don’t appreciate jokes denigrating their life’s work…
I mean, they probably wouldn’t appreciate it if they felt human emotion and weren’t just twisted sociopaths hellbent on enacting revenge on society for some imagined slight in high school.
In this article so far, I’ve gone after:
- The German language
- The large Korean electronics manufacturer whose exploding phones were banned on airplanes due to their propensity to, well, explode
- Lorraine from accounting
- Communications majors and the downtrodden souls who unfortunately possess liberal arts degrees
- Owen Wilson 🧑🏼
- Marketers in general… and some in particular
- Animal charities
- That one animal charity song
- Des Moines 🌽
- Tech bros
- Sylvia Plath fans
- Legal teams
- The car insurance industry
- Russian literature
- Pretentious writers
- The punk band Disrupt 🤘
- Corporate speak
- Morticians ☠
- Twitter outrage
- “Forward-Thinking” Insurance’s sense of humor, their marketing team, spokesperson and name
- Lounge acts
- Some sort of robber-baron CEO caricature
- Billionaire and presumed Bond villain, Jeff Bezos 🦹♂️
And I’m not even done yet. I still plan on going after British condiments, science-fiction-writers-turned-religious-figures and at least one fast-casual dining chain.
Anyway, just remember: If no one likes you, you’re an ass; if everyone likes you, you’re boring.
4. Comedy is vulnerable
This is another huge issue for so many companies.
Your impulse is to only say positive things about your product, your brand, your mission. But there’s a problem.
No one cares about you. They care about themselves. They care about their own problems.
You need to solve those problems if you want people to buy from you.
But you’ve got to talk about yourself a little, right?
Sure, but… think of it like a date.
If all you do is talk about how brilliant you are, the poor soul who swiped the wrong way and is now stuck in a Buffalo Wild Wings with you is going to suddenly remember they are allergic to chicken and cockiness.
They’ll see right through you and run faster than the Flash runs to a toilet after eating, well, Buffalo Wild Wings.
Look at your website. Have you written some superhero origin story about how your ball bearing company started in 1984 after your L. Ron Hubbard-stunt-double founder realized ball bearings could be rounder and shinier?
Actually, that might be kind of funny…
Anyway, the point is: Most people just want some ball bearings and no one cares why you make them.
And if you understand this, you can make yourself memorable by not taking yourself too seriously.
Outline all the use cases for your product, demonstrate its reliability, but why not have fun with it?
I know I’d remember your “size doesn’t matter when you’ve got balls of steel” joke if I ever found myself needing to buy ball bearings by the bushel or peck, or whatever wholesale ball bearings come in.
5. Comedy tells truth (even when it doesn’t)
People can smell BS from a mile away.
In Britain, there is a product called Marmite — it’s a spread masochists can put on toast to punish their taste buds. To any reasonable person, it tastes like a war crime.
But some people inexplicably love it.
So, while they could have run an ad campaign saying they were the tastiest treat to have ever graced the mouths of mortals, they instead went with an honest slogan: “You either love us or you hate us.”
And over time, their commercials seemed to focus more and more on the hate side because, well, it was funnier.
It was funnier because of their honesty. It endeared their brand even to people who actually hated their brand. It showed self-awareness, vulnerability and established a noble POV — we’re here for the people whose taste buds are so out of whack they somehow love us.
Honesty really is the best policy because it’s relatable.
This is why B2C companies — with notable exceptions like Wendy’s — usually fail when using memes in social media advertising.
Not because the memes aren’t funny but because the act of sharing memes with friends is an honest transaction. It lets you signal to your friend that you understand their sense of humor, that you are thinking about them or that you value their happiness.
When a brand does it, it signals dishonesty. They’re trying to take your money by pretending to be your friend. That feels dirty.
People smell BS from a mile away.
But there is also a deeper level to truth in comedy. Even if the situation is outlandish or even entirely untrue, it often works because it illuminates some higher truth about human existence.
An offensive joke is funny not because the hurtful component is true, but because you aren’t supposed to say it, which reflects societal mores.
Satire distorts reality to reveal the silliness of authority.
Even a fart joke can be seen as a philosophical examination of what it means to be part of a species that denounces its own bodily functions.
Is your organization transparent? Is truth one of its guiding principles? If not, you’re going to have trouble being funny.
Humor tells the truth — even when it doesn’t.
Or don’t. I don’t know. I’m not your dad.
OK, there it is. That’s why you’re not funny when you put pen to paper — or, if you don’t live in the 1850s, fingers to keyboard. That’s why your copy is dripping with unzureichendkitzelnwörter.
If you work in a field where it makes sense and you do want to be funny in your copy, then this entire blog can be boiled down to two words (but isn’t because I can’t buy ramen for 7 cents):
Write authentically. Take risks. Be vulnerable. Split the room with Kafka references and fart jokes. Stop caring about being likeable. Have a point of view. Have a purpose.
Tell the truth.
But, for the love of God, please don’t open any kimonos.
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