Legendary ad agency executive Jerry Della Femina once said that “advertising is the most fun that you can have with your clothes on.” While I am not sure that I fully agree with agree with his sentiment, the fact of the matter remains that advertising and marketing related work has the potential to be fun. I’ve had some fun times in my own work in marketing.
The reason I’m asking this question is because of the nature of many distributed marketing organizations. Distributed marketing companies are often in the insurance and financial services. A common perception of insurance and financial services is that they are typically boring. For example, a Google search of the phrase “Is insurance boring?” brings up about 15,500,000 results.
Companies in industries like insurance, financial services and healthcare are often heavily regulated. There are some key brand compliance concerns in marketing messaging in these industries. Distributed marketing management software ensures that ads be accessed, personalized and distributed at the local level without compliance concerns that can cause significant fines at the corporate level. Fines from marketing activity in regulated industries can be a cause of concern. In financial services for example, FINRA fines were expected to rise by 15% in 2012 compared to 2011. Sanctions associated with advertising and marketing violations grew 344% with the total number of alleged violations doubling compared to the prior year. With heavy handed regulation & valid concerns over brand compliance issues, sometimes marketing managers are reticent to do something innovative and creative with marketing efforts. However, when those concerns are removed, marketers can be more creative and there’s greater degrees of fun in the marketing ecosystem, both in corporate only marketing initiatives and in local led marketing efforts.
There are some great examples of brands in this space that have found ways to have fun with their messaging. In the mid 2000s, Nationwide Insurance had a couple of really funny ads that years later stand out in my mind. The first ad I remember was when Kevin Federline was part of the mainstream conversation, not long after his marriage to and divorce from Britney Spears. The Nationwide ad featured Federline rapping, making a music video about the high and fast life of being a rap artist, when suddenly it cuts to Federline working behind the counter of a fast food joint, being barked at by a middle aged, balding manager to get someone’s fries. The tag line was “Life Comes At You Pretty Fast Sometimes.”. Another ad, with the same tag line featured musician MC Hammer, who was well known for blowing the $30+ Million he earned during the heyday of his music career, had the same effect, and MC Hammer was a good sport for being able to poke fun at his own financial troubles. Both of these ads were memorable because of the humor in the concept of these ads, based on common real life events. Celebrities can often blow through absurd sums of money and find themselves in bankruptcy court or in other precarious situations. The same thing can happen to regular people. Incidents can put people in dire financial straits, and it is good to plan for potential catastrophes so they aren’t quite as catastrophic. A simple message, but if not expressed in a humorous sort of way, it can resonate less with people. People often postpone insurance and/or financial services decisions, decisions which are often crucial to one’s life.
These two were Super Bowl ads. So Nationwide devoted a significant amount of resources to them. Social media was in its infancy in those days and major brands were less likely to be leveraging them back in the mid 2000s. If a similar campaign were to be executed today, the Super Bowl ad would likely be leaked on YouTube first approximately a week or so before the game. Buzz would build online around the ad before game day. Brand Facebook & Twitter accounts would cross promote the YouTube video. After the game, there would be a lot of chatter and word spreading around the ad, both in an official capacity on the brand’s social media accounts and unofficially on people’s own social media accounts. Distributed social media marketing is a powerful tool.
In the ensuing years, Nationwide has continued to use humor in their ads. I found some recent ads on their website and YouTube channels called “Disappear” and “Halfway”. “Disappear” is about vanishing deductibles, and some sweet special effects are used to make things disappear, like someone’s excessive weight in their stomach area, other cars in a traffic jam and a Corvette. The point of the ad was that they can’t make things like that disappear, but they can make deductibles disappear with a certain type of product offering. “Halfway” details how the Brand New Belongings option gives a policyholder full value for items stolen or destroyed, not partial value, and the imagery used is someone stepping on half a scale, cooking bacon in half of a microwave or a man wearing half of a suit. Although neither of these ads are as riotously funny as the Federline or MC Hammer ads, there’s enough humor to evoke an emotional response and promote brand recall.
At the same time, using humor in marketing messaging can work against a brand. There’s a very line in humor oriented messages. If a joke fails to connect or offends, it is possible you’ve got a multi-channel brand crisis on your hands.
A favorite example of mine of a brand that failed to connect in an attempt of humor was Hacienda Mexican Restaurants. Hacienda is a small chain of Mexican restaurants in Indiana. In a 2011 billboard ad, Hacienda touted that their margaritas were “To Die For” and the restaurant was “like a cult, only with better Kool-Aid”. This was a thinly veiled to the 1978 Jonestown cult massacre, a well known incident. Hacienda eventually pulled the billboard ad. It was the right decision as the the ad should have never seen the light of day to begin with. Saying that a product is “To Die For” can easily be misinterpreted and offend a target market. Referring to a well known mass suicide to sell tropical drinks and mid priced Mexican fare is not the way to go, and is offensive to those who lost family members in the tragedy. The goal of advertising is to be memorable and develop positive brand beliefs, not offend people and turn them off to a brand. Humor is a way of being memorable, but it is a very fine line. It is often quite subjective. If you have to question whether or not something is offensive, quite likely it will offend enough.
I’d recommend that advertising messages in distributed organizations have a fun component from time to time. Not all advertising messages need to be serious, even though the subject matter in industries known to have distributed organizations tends to be perceived as dry. If brand compliance is addressed, and humor is unlikely to be perceived as offensive by large portions of the populations, having fun marketing messaging has the potential to improve employee morale and a well resonating message can also improve corporate financial performance.