Is It OK to Be Funny Right Now?

What we lost when brands got so serious

As a creator of funny—or, on bad days, funny adjacent—advertising, this is the big question people are asking me right now.

And I get why. I get the magnitude of what has happened, and what continues to happen, in our world. And I get that this question is ultimately asked out of respect. Respect for people who have lost loved ones. Respect for people who are spending their days in harm's way. Respect for people who have lost their livelihood. Put simply, those things are no joke, and nobody wants to diminish them.

But on another level, I find the question frustrating. Or at the very least, indicative of a larger, ongoing shortcoming. What bothers me is not that we're asking it now, but that times like these are the only time we ever bother to ask it.

To me, we haven't cared if our audience has wanted humor or not for the last decade—why do we suddenly care now?

Brands have never taken themselves more seriously—a trend we all know began long before Covid-19. Our industry is dominated by the discourse of purpose-driven brands. From our award shows to our industry talks, we have adopted and trumpeted the notion that brands are the new agents of positive social change. Based on all that, you'd expect we'd be exceptionally well-positioned to respond to Covid-19. We've endured a decade where microwave popcorn brands are doing campaigns about domestic violence and whitening strips have an opinion on global poverty—we should be well-equipped to address a moment so universally relevant that virtually every brand has a right/responsibility to have a POV on it. 

Right?

Um … have you … seen the work we've been putting out? I wouldn't exactly say we've risen to the occasion. In fact, it took The Internet just a few short weeks to turn out several biting parodies of the single "in these uncertain times" anthem spot the industry has collectively made and remade 10,000 times over. And those were the most memorable and meaningful things our industry has managed to produce—albeit indirectly.

By my math, we're coming up on a decade into the age of humorless work, and as humor has died in our industry, so too have our relevance and our effectiveness. As an industry, we deeply underestimate humor. We ignore its power to create community and empathy. We ignore the fundamental contract between advertiser and consumer that requires a little burst of joy as payment for a little place in your consciousness for a moment—humor is unrivaled at delivering that burst of joy. I firmly believe that, had we at any point over the last decade figured out how to ask humanity, "Is now an OK time for brands to be funny?", they would have gasped, "Sweet Jesus, yes please, what took you so long?"

I realize I'm avoiding the question of right now. Admittedly, it's tough to be the arbiter of what's right for right now—funny or otherwise.

But I do know that, when I watched the NFL Draft a few weeks back, I fidgeted uncomfortably during the ceaseless onslaught of emotive montages and soaked in every opportunity a brand offered me to escape reality for a few, fleeting seconds.

I know that, when texting with friends, or standing around the kitchen with my wife after our kids go to bed, our language of coping is humor.

And I know that right now, my family and I are comforted by the small distractions and moments of normalcy that brands can provide. Little things like take-out from QSRs, backyard games and once-forbidden sugary breakfast cereals have all become much bigger deals. Remnants of how life was. I wish we'd make work that recreates that experience—that provides moments of joy, escape and laughter—versus work that overstates and fetishizes a brand's role in our increasingly difficult lives.

Asking if it's OK to be funny right now is essentially asking, "How do I best fit into your life?" And that is the fundamental question we've failed to ask, and continue to fail to ask, far too often.

So, is it OK to be funny right now? You can probably guess what my vote would be.

But during these uncertain times (see what I did there?), I'd be happy if we could just agree on two simple things. One, that humor has more to offer brands than what we've been using it for. Humor isn't just how we goof off; it can be how we empathize, how we heal, and how we move on. And two, that we should be questioning humor's place—or, more to the point, lack of place—in our work all the time. Not just now, and not just as an easy excuse to turn out another self-important anthem.

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Sean McBride
Sean McBride is chief creative officer of Arnold Worldwide.

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