Humour in Advertising
Quoting Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy once warned about the perils of using humour in advertising: “People don’t buy from clowns”.
I’m not sure if that’s true. Although it might be.
Of course, many memorable and effective ad campaigns have used humour. The Andrex puppy is funny, as is a beer that reaches other parts. In fact, there are so many that it’d be pointless to list them all here. But I reckon it’s fair to say that the reason they were successful wasn’t just because they were amusing but because the product was central to the ads. They never forgot they were in the business of selling.
I mention this because last week there was an interesting example of how humour in advertising can backfire. And also how social media – despite all the anecdotal guff – still isn’t a great tool for selling.
Arena Flowers is an independent online florist. Last year they decided to turn their Twitter account into something less corporate, less stuffy. Which is fine – more companies should think about this. What they did, however, was turn it into something completely removed from their business. Instead of talking about flowers, it talked about… well, absolutely anything. Surreal, inventive and very funny it soon gained thousands of new followers and was held up as a shining example of how to ‘do’ Twitter.
Arena were so chuffed with this reception that they set up a page dedicated to explaining the whys and wherefores of the account: here. Do have a look, if only to see examples of their tweets. As well as being extremely pleased with gaining so many followers, they also talk about that old chestnut ‘engagement’. What they don’t mention, however, is whether their Twitter feed helped to increase sales. It probably did. I don’t know.
It was Valentine’s Day last week. For florists this must be Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one. The biggest day of the year. Any florist worth its salt would be all geared up to ensure that it all goes off smoothly.
Unfortunately for Arena, things didn’t go that well. Without going into the details, many (or some) didn’t receive their bouquets on the big day. Understandably, they were outraged. The one day of the year when a florist had to get it right and they failed.
As with any other company that screws up, they had to deal with the complaints. But what Arena also had to face was strong criticism about their very image and, specifically, their use of humour. I saw many tweets directed at them along the lines of: “Why not spend less time on ‘jokes’ and more time on your business?” Or: “They couldn’t deliver flowers because they were too busy writing about lizard carnivals or something”.
Of course, it’s not at all true that they were messing about trying to be funny instead of doing flowers. Even the most outraged customer would accept that their Twitter feed isn’t handled by the despatch manager.
But it’s all about perception. More crucially, I think it’s about trust and about customers feeling a bit silly. And that’s where the problem is: Arena presented themselves as being completely different from their more stuffy competitors. I imagine many of their customers were pleased to be supporting a company that seemed independent and unique, and not at all corporate. In an age where supermarkets and chain stores are so dominant, what’s not nice about cheering on the little guy? Well, nothing – as long as the little guy is at least as good as, if not better than, the big guy.
To their credit, Arena immediately stopped all the jokes and – probably for the first time – genuinely engaged with their customers. Their apologies were sincere and fulsome and they made all the right noises about compensation, discount and promising to sort things out. Even in the face of abuse they handled themselves very well. Because they stuck by the old, and absolutely correct, adage that the customer – no matter how wrong or deranged – is always right.
It’ll be interesting to see what the damage is here. Will they return to their once much-admired irreverence, or will they become more business-like? Really, they have no choice but to go with the latter option. Which isn’t to say, of course, that they can’t do humour.
In the end, it’s about getting the balance right. No, people don’t buy from clowns – and if they do, don’t be surprised if they dismiss you as a bunch of clowns when things go wrong. It was, in hindsight perhaps, a dangerous game for them to play. Especially on Twitter where word of your messing up can spread in no time.
If I were Arena, I’d re-think Twitter and its value to the company. Yes, it’s good for engaging with your customers but ultimately: so what? People don’t want relationships with brands. They might tell you that they do, but they don’t. They want good products and good service at a reasonable price. That’s what you need to get right before anything else. Without those things, you’re simply wasting your time.
In that respect they’d also do well to remember the words of Bob Hoffman: “We don’t get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand. We get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.” And that’s where good old fashioned advertising will trump messing about on Twitter any day.