Thought Leadership

Does advertising need to regain its sense of humour?

In the midst of an unrelenting news cycle of gloom, darker nights and economic uncertainty, has the advertising industry lost its sense of humour?

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director


Light relief. We could all do with some. The restorative power of laughter is well known to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. The ability to share a laugh can bring disparate groups of people together; the joy of silliness, proper belly laughs or stifled giggles prove the notion that laughter is the best medicine is more than a tired cliché.

Humour in advertising is also serious business. According to Kantar’s AdReaction research, humour is the most important ad for UK Audiences; 65% of Generation Z audiences globally say that humour is the most important creative enhancer of receptivity. In short, consumers are more likely to enjoy the ad in question and therefore have a positive view of the brand in question.

Yet here comes the punchline; humour is often under-utilised in advertising particularly amongst ads featuring women. Kantar’s research reveals that’s ads featuring only women use comedy less than half as often as ads featuring only men (22% vs 51%).

With this in mind we asked a range of industry leaders if the advertising industry has lost its sense of humour:

Humour goes a long way in allowing advertising to stand out in a world that can sometimes feel a bit jaded.

Cherie Cunningham

Cherie Cunningham

Cherie Cunningham, UKTV.jpg

Head of Marketing


The world needs a bit of fun and daftness at the moment. Whether that’s Channel 4 embracing and having playful fun with viewer complaints in its latest ‘Complaints Welcome’ campaign, to Dave brightening a dreary commute with ads dedicated to making people laugh on the tube and train. We need to break those familiar, and often monotonous, routines of life with a bit of entertainment. Humour goes a long way in allowing advertising to stand out in a world that can sometimes feel a bit jaded.

Dave has more recently been working with mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) on a project that highlights friendship. Our ‘Be the mate you’d want’ campaign uses comedy to talk about an important topic, mental health, in a very accessible and relatable way, encouraging more people to open up the conversation. The campaign kick-started with an ad-break takeover voiced by James Acaster encouraging viewers to check in with their mates. Earlier this year, we aired a “Comedy Festival in an Ad Break” and launched a podcast called Conversations Against Living Miserably hosted by mental health author Aaron Gillies and stand-up comic Lauren Pattison.  

I’d encourage all brands to see where they might be able to brighten someone’s day with a bit of humour here or there in their advertising.

Dan Glover-James

Dan Glover-James, VCCP.jpg

Associate Creative Director


Has advertising really lost its sense of humour? I don’t think so. I’ve certainly smiled at the recent Paddy Power work, guffawed at Old Spice’s Swagger and genuinely laughed out loud at that Alan Partridge email stunt.

But all these ads are for sectors known for using humour. I think comedy can be even more powerful, and effective, when it’s unexpected. It’s one of the reasons we chose to use humour in our recent work for Nationwide’s PayDay SaveDay, a campaign that encourages everyone to start putting a bit of money aside on the day they get paid rather than at the end of the month. That’s right, a boring old savings message. The world of finance ads is often a world of worthy and the odd black horse running along an empty beach at dusk. We thought stand-up comedy had a good chance of standing out. The results so far have certainly been encouraging, and we’re hoping to continue the campaign with more laughs in the new year.

I don’t think advertising needs to necessarily find its funny again, just be a bit braver in cracking a joke when people aren’t expecting one. 

Great humour is sharp, can be biting and gets to the heart of insights and truths.

Amelia Torode

Amelia Torode

Amelia Torode, The Fawnbrake Collective.jpg


The Fawnbrake Collective

Humour is a funny thing. What is, and what isn’t, funny. To hear that folks are worried that advertising has lost its sense of humour strikes me as funny.  

We are surrounded by smart funny voices, new and fresh angles on culture and modern life. And as these voices grow in the world outside of Adland - I am thinking partly of the diversity issue with the Cambridge Footlights and the opening up of opportunities - we need to do the same in our industry.

Great humour is sharp, can be biting and gets to the heart of insights and truths. I understand that people can be worried that their humour might miss the mark in this woke new world. But I wonder whether those worrying are those in the Adland establishment; possibly older, probably male, probably white? 

If you want to uncover new voices, talk to Lynne Parker at Funny Women or Asad Dhunna at The Unmistakables. Tell them Amelia sent you, and that’s not a joke.

Jonathan Grant

Jonathan Grant, The Brooklyn Brothers.jpg

Senior Creative

The Brooklyn Brothers

Yes. Yes, it does. As an industry our collective will to address the issues of the day, while laudable, often subsumes our interest in producing genuinely irreverent work. We shouldn’t assume our audience has lost its appetite for ads that make them laugh, in fact, quite the reverse. In these Brexit riven times a 30-second hit of something funny is what people crave.

Good comedy has the added benefit, of being that most sought after of all things, ‘highly shareable content’ - I know, I was just a bit sick in my mouth too. Allied to this it’s wrong to assume we can’t comment on what really matters in a way which is both meaningful and funny. Indeed, it’s often the most effective way to earn the attention of our audience. From Lenny Bruce to John Oliver, Eddie Izzard to Samantha Bee, comedic history bulges with examples of those who’ve something to say and are hilarious while saying it.

Fun work is also fun to make and, ultimately, not taking ourselves and what we produce too seriously is good for not just our CVs, but also our souls. What society finds amusing, acceptable and provocative is ever changing, but our desire to laugh is a constant. As creatives, our set ups have become ever more interesting, but those making work which rises above the noise and actually entertains in the process are invariably the ones who don’t forget the punchline.

If you do set out to be funny in advertising, don’t let advertising get in the way of your sense of humour.

Franki Goodwin

Franki Goodwin

Franki Goodwin, Saatchi & Saatchi.png

Creative Director

Saatchi & Saatchi London

I don’t think advertising needs a sense of humour. The role brands and agencies play in shaping culture is far too important to play to a single note or populist genre. 

Just kidding.

Have we started to take ourselves too seriously? I have no idea. But I did have a reminder recently that if we are hoping to make work funny then funny is king.

We were lucky enough to work with comedy actress, writer and director Alice Lowe in making a comedy-horror story for Direct Line. It was a simple story about a young woman who prangs her car on the way back from the buying cheese at the supermarket.

Script feedback questioned whether a 22-year-old would actually leave the house for cheese. Are Gen Z that into cheese? Will it resonate with that audience?

Alice simply said, “I don’t know. Cheese is just a funny word.”

So, all I know is, if you do set out to be funny in advertising, don’t let advertising get in the way of your sense of humour.

Rob Fletcher

Rob Fletcher, isobel.jpg

Creative Partner


Frequently I ask the question: “Can we be funny?”. “Well, erm, not ‘funny funny,’” comes the response. “Witty, yes, a little sense of humour, maybe”. It gets me thinking that humour often is the most engaging element of the work we do. I grew up around ads that were funny. Not just beer ads. Most advertisements back then used comedy to draw you in. I guess it was the lack of SFX and CGI; back then agencies relied on writers. In advertising, in the work we produce, it seems to be an avenue we’re not encouraged to take anymore. And that’s not very funny.

At isobel, we’re trying to build a culture around being human. As an advertising agency, we create the voice for many brands and businesses. I think the best human trait is the ability to laugh, to make each other laugh. We have started a comedy night, not just because they are brilliant fun and a good chance to socialise with all our friends and their friends, but also to remind us that this is a human industry. There’s something incredibly bonding when a person stands up and recounts a personal moment that they’ve experienced. 

You laugh and nod because you have shared that very same moment and it’s a shock that you’re not the only one. Then you realise the whole room is laughing, that we’ve all experienced that exact same thing. It’s insightful, it’s a truth and it’s exactly what is at the heart of what we try to do in our agency. We need to find what makes us laugh so we can find more things that connect us than divide us.

If we are going to elbow our way in and attempt to be funny, let’s start writing for real people again.

George Gunn

Matt Box

Matt Box, George P. Johnson.png

Senior Strategist

George P. Johnson

As a full-time brand strategist and part-time comedian, I feel I have a foot in both camps here.

In the creative industry we should always be driven by what garners the best results for our clients. However, short term efforts relating to ‘big data’, being ‘hyper-targeted’ and ‘mass personalisation’ favour rational messages over anything side-splitting. The danger being that these efforts deviate from the core uses of humour: to bring people together and effectively deliver an emotive message.

Comedian and author Sara Pascoe references 16th Century writer Philip Sydney’s ‘Defence of Poesy’ saying, “If you make people enjoy themselves, they learn so much more”. An idea that research supports with multiple studies demonstrating a link between humour and better retention of information. The neuroscience behind which proves that the dopamine ‘hit’ a good chuckle gives is “important for goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory”.

When you read stories like Josh Thompson hiring a clown for his redundancy meeting, or the consistently hilarious Twitter feed of R/GA, I don’t think the industry lacks a sense of humour. But research shows we should certainly embrace it more to deliver success for brands, in the long term.

George Gunn

George Gunn, Leith.jpg

Content Strategist & Planner


The only thing advertising needs to do is work. We’d all be out of a job otherwise. But when it comes to making effective advertising, humour as a device can deliver big time, particularly in terms of grabbing and holding attention, building brand love and proving memorable. As the creative agency behind IRN-BRU’s ads, we’re happily aware of this effect.

Whether it’s the Smash Martians, Guinness Dancing Man or Hamlet cigars, humorous efforts regularly dominate polls of the UK’s best-loved campaigns and even find themselves entering the cultural zeitgeist. This doesn’t just apply to old-school TV ads either. Research by “Science of Sharing” expert Karen Nelson-Field demonstrates how intense and positive emotions, including hilarity, trigger sharing of online videos like nothing else.

As advertising people, we all recognise this power, and it’s no surprise therefore to see ad breaks still loaded with ‘funny’ ads. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, much of this humour has become increasingly wacky, obnoxious and ultimately irritating to the general public i.e. the very people we should always have top of mind when creating advertising.

It’s crucial to remind ourselves that advertising is something to be ignored, avoided, skipped or even blocked for most of the population. If we are going to elbow our way in and attempt to be funny, let’s start writing for real people again.