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Humor Now – All Joking Aside?

by Amber Yoder

You might not have even noticed it happened. This year, April 1st came and went with very little fanfare. Usually the day is marked by silly digital pranks and funny faux products from brands around the globe (remember Honda Canada’s ‘Polite Horn’?), but this year was different. And we all know why.

But why?

During times of crisis, brand messaging tends to lean into the somber and the sincere. Maybe it’s occasionally uplifting or heartwarming. But very rarely do brands or nonprofits leverage humor, comedy, or even lighthearted levity during a crisis.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Humor during dark times can be a healing balm. We’re all familiar with ‘gallows humor’. But humor doesn’t necessarily need to mean making light of a bad situation. It can provide a much needed distraction. Or a cathartic release. Good humor can make the difference between surviving in a crisis, and thriving. Even Queen Elizabeth II (a known paragon of comedy) recently called on Brittons to respond to the challenges ahead with “good-humored resolve”.

And actually, we’re seeing plenty of humor these days coming from sources we already turn to for humor — comedians and entertainers are working hard to keep us laughing, even when things are dark. And it’s working — with some of our favorites like SNL and Jimmy Fallon racking up millions of views and lots of fan love.

But for brands and organizations, humor can be especially tricky. What’s funny to some may be perceived as wildly inappropriate to others. And the bigger the brand or institution, the more flack you may catch for being insensitive during a time of crisis.

But does that mean that brands and orgs are limited only to a sincere and somber tone of voice?

There’s an overabundance of sincerity in communications right now. So much so that audiences are starting to tune it out. We’re tired of empty virtue signaling and morose reminders that we’re “alone together”. Humor and levity, if used properly, could help a brand or organization stand out beyond the white noise of “in this time” and “in this together”.

So, here are a few guidelines for communicators who want to start to play with a humorous tone and voice in an emotionally intelligent way.

Authenticity is key

“Authenticity is the key component in humor,” says Mimi Fernandez, Director at Red Fan Communications.  And right now, that means trading in slickness for a more familiar, low tech look. “People don’t want to see you all perfect and buttoned up, they want to see you having fun,” says Fernandez. Focus on making your message human, authentic, and emotionally resonate. Save the bells and whistles for another day. – a translation / caption provider – has always had a very clever tone of voice. Their April 2020 newsletter managed to evoke some chuckles straight from the subject line, while still acknowledging the moment we’re all in. The tone is friendly, clever, positive, and service oriented in an authentic way.

Stay true to your roots

Was humor or lightheartedness part of your brand voice before the crisis? If so, then comedy is already a proven tool in your wheelhouse. If not, then tread lightly. Remember, authenticity is key – and if your humor feels forced or out of left field, it may not land.

Burger King walked that line well with their recent stay home spot – which combined their trademark blend of sarcastic humor with a more sincere message about giving back. It worked because it was exactly the brand voice we know and expect from them.

“The brands that will do best are the ones that have already been there,” says Jerry Griffin, Managing Partner at B/HI. “If comedy hasn’t been your character up until this point, don’t risk it.”

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. See Steak-ummm’s blowing up Twitter with self-deprecating truth bombs. “It’s a precision move,” says Griffin. “The right brand at the right time can do it.”

Get creative

“When you have containment you have more creativity,” says Mimi Fernandez. “We can be even scrappier.

It’s true. Now is a great time to stretch those creative muscles. Try out something you’ve been thinking about for a while but never acted on. Maybe it’s a live stream on Instagram or Facebook. Maybe it’s time to take your cues from beauty brands like NYX who are diving into TikTok during quarantine. Or explore some other new creative medium. Whatever it is, try something new.

Be relevant, be necessary

This mantra should be true of all communications, crisis or not. But it bears repeating. For our purposes, this means humor should be relatable and/or useful. Relevant humor is cathartic. It’s an in-joke that we’re all in on. Useful humor provides the audience with something valuable – information, or a much needed distraction. An example of this that we’ve loved recently came from The Fabulous App – a science based self-improvement app. Their post about social distancing is the right blend of funny, relevant, and useful.

The 3 word litmus test

Wondering if your comedy play is going to hit the mark? Griffin’s advice:

“If you have to ask ‘Is this funny?’ — don’t do it.”

Simple as that.

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