Funny business: what brands can learn from stand-up comedy  

Matt Box, a senior strategist at George P Johnson Experience Marketing, offers some tips on advertising that he's picked up from the comedy circuit

'They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian ... Well they're not laughing now.' - Bob Monkhouse

I’ve worked in brand strategy at various agencies for just over seven years, but in the last seven months I’ve started writing and performing stand-up comedy. That means half of my time is spent trudging between various venues, trying to get a reaction out of people, often while being shouted at by drunks…and the other half is spent doing stand up.

It’s exactly this kind of ‘misdirection’ that both comics and brands often utilise to give audiences that little dopamine hit.
Take Guinness Surfer as an example. At first glance you think you’re watching an art-house film all about catching the best wave, but then all is revealed as an elaborate metaphor for the benefits of a slow-pouring stout. Boom boom! 

And that’s just one of the many lessons that brands can take from comedians in their battle to gain attention, communicate effectively and provoke an action from their audience. As David Ogilvy said ‘the best ideas come as jokes.’ So I’ve pulled together the jokes of 3 comedians and the lessons that can be learnt from them, for brands.

1. Own the Prejudice 

The first joke is from the conveniently named Jo Brand. An expert in controlling an audience from her opening line. Jo would open her sets with the following.

'I’ll move the mic stand, so you can see me' – Jo Brand

A better fat joke than any heckler would be able to manage and it’s something I call owning the prejudice. Taking a negative audience perception and giving the power back to the speaker. Something that can be incredibly effective for businesses as well. 

For example, US retail store RadioShack knew it was considered to be stuck in the past. The brand acknowledged this with its 2014 Super Bowl ad, ‘The 80’s called, they want their store back’. It was widely reported to have ‘won the Super Bowl’ and delivered an overnight 7% bump in share price, overturning decades of decline. All from calling out a weakness and embracing a bit of self-deprecation.

2. Let the Audience Do the Work
Next is from Mark Watson…
'Always leave them wanting more, my uncle used to say to me. Which is why he lost his job in disaster relief' – Mark Watson
The reason that joke works is because you, the audience, fill in the disparity between a classic showbiz phrase and the concept of disaster relief. Something I call ‘letting your audience do the work’. 
Jerry Seinfeld uses the metaphor of Evel Knievel jumping a canyon to explain how jokes rely on their audience. Make the mental leap the audience need to jump too big and it fails, they fall into the ravine. Conversely, make the mental leap too small, or over explain something, and they could easily step over it; removing any thrill. The skill is creating a mental leap just the right size that it is rewarding to make.
A good example of a brand that doesn’t make things too easy is The Economist with this iconic David Abbott ad. An iconic ad… if a little ageist. C’mon Dave, we can’t all be born with PPE degrees.
3. Flip the Argument
The last example is from Fin Taylor, a comic that prides himself on making fun of both sides of the political spectrum, illustrated by the following…
'You hear that argument, well if you had to kill the animal yourself, you’d feel a lot differently about eating the meat. That works both ways vegan! Like, if you had to actually fly to Mexico to rip off an avocado farmer to his face…' – Fin Taylor
Which is a great example of what I call ‘flipping the argument’. If you invert the well-trodden path you’ll end up somewhere much more interesting. Something brands can utilise to stand out in crowded marketplaces. 
Take US Telco Sprint, which is half the price of its biggest competitor Verizon. However, rather than stress how much cheaper it was, Sprint instead said Verizon was twice the price: a simple switch that reframes the debate and removes the risk of Sprint becoming just a discount player.  
That’s just the tip of the iceberg for what brands can learn from stand up. So, in the words of Mark Watson’s recently unemployed uncle, I’ll leave you wanting more…

Box initially presented the content of this blog as a talk at the Contagious Summer Bootcamp event.

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