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Funny is power

Why Comic Relief and Pablo turned to the galvanising force of an unexpected giggle for Red Nose Day 2021.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“What is it to be human?” As actress Judi Dench asks viewers of Comic Relief’s flagship Red Nose Day’s advertising campaign this profound question, you would be forgiven for predicting the storytelling arc the campaign would subsequently take. It would likely not include Dench taking a hoover to Benedict Cumberbatch’s face.

Yet that is exactly the unexpected riff on the classic charity manifesto ad, served up by Pablo. The TV spot forms part of the ‘Funny is Power’ multi-channel campaign to encourage fundraising and support for Red Nose Day 2021 taking place on Friday 19th March.

Charity advertising and appeal films have long been criticised for ‘poverty porn’ and relying on development narratives based around ‘white saviourism’. Yet, as this campaign underlines, a lot has changed in 35 years of Comic Relief and this campaign shifts the narrative with unexpected humour, which pops the traditional bubble of charity advertising.

Jo Cullen, Head of Marketing & Media at Comic Relief, explained: “We wanted to inject even more joy into the campaign and Pablo has delivered that.”

A love of light relief

So, what is behind the charity’s love of light relief? Dan Watts, Executive Creative Director at Pablo, explains: “We’re popping a serious approach with a funny, but serious point. That the news has become all doom and gloom, that adverts are all about worthy mood films to sombre music, that everyone seems to be divided on many levels.”

It’s an ecosystem in which, as he explains, you could easily get to the point where you are left saying “I don't really know what to do”.  However, he adds: “When we step back, we have to remember that we’re all just human. We might all come in different shapes, sizes and flavours but we all have one big thing in common: laughter. And we can use that commonality to help change things for the better, either by sharing a joke with someone and connecting or by donating to Comic Relief.”

Changing the narrative

Historically we have seen some criticism for charity brands for relying on the ‘white saviour’ narrative in advertising. In many ways this campaign can be viewed through the lens of a shifting narrative for charity advertising as a sector.

Harriet Knight, Business Director at Pablo, explains that this is something the team has been very conscious of. “We have made it part of our approach from casting Judi and Benedict right through to crew on set. Comic Relief is an inclusive charity and is just as much about supporting and helping people at home as it is abroad,” she says.

Knight underlines the fact that much of the work Comic Relief does today is focused on supporting mental health, domestic abuse and homelessness. All issues that are more prevalent than ever in the current COVID pandemic. She notes that following on from Sport Relief 2020, much of the focus of funding has been used to support those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A fact which runs contrary to the classic charity archetypes of providing foreign aid.

Building a brand world

While the hero TV spot will doubtless net eyeballs and attention across adland, it is perhaps within the detail of the brand world that the charity will find relevance over time. Notably, Comic Relief’s Cullen points to the agency’s “expertise in leveraging multiple communication channels” to both grow brand relevance and increase understanding of the areas the charity funds.

The design identity was created by in-house lead Pablo designer Mark Harrison. It spans logo, iconography and visual assets. An intricate and colourful design world brings together Tom van Scheleven’s photography, with headlines and bespoke symbols to underline the message of the campaign. It delivers a deep and contemporary world for a brand which has become something of a British institution.

Nathalie Gordon, Creative Director at Pablo shared that it is rare to get the opportunity to create a brand world. She explains: “To carry a message through from script and trickle it down through iconography, fonts and even colours really makes you scrutinise your message.”

For Comic Relief, a brand with such a broad consumer base, this security was vital. “As a brand that speaks to both adults and children, we had to straddle that fine line and create something that had broad mass appeal and a personality that communicated powerful silliness. Creating the brand world for this campaign allowed us to give it a visual tone of voice that in some way conveys more than any film can,” Gordon explains.

Funny motivates, it lowers barriers, and it elevates. Above all else, if you make someone laugh you’re winning.

Dan Watts

The power of humour

A great deal has been written about the power of humour in advertising and the power of humour in building effective marketing strategies. Yet in the midst of a global pandemic is the industry too scared of using humour at a time when consumers perhaps need it most?

“We should never be scared of humour as long as we use it in the right way. It’s what gets us through the good times and the bad times as Monty Python reminded us with Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” explains Watts.

“People want, they need, cheering up at the moment. Funny motivates, it lowers barriers, and it elevates. Above all else, if you make someone laugh, you’re winning. It is indeed a powerful thing,” he adds.

Yet the creative process for the spot started long before the coronavirus crisis, as Gordon shares; “we’ve really seen all four seasons with this one.” She says: “Ultimately, there was a lot of just trying to make each other laugh, questioning why we find certain things funny and just generally putting humour under a microscope to really understand its power. In doing so we realised that ‘it’s the small things’ that have the biggest impact, like a hoover to the face. And I think COVID has reiterated that for us.”

The team believes that Comic Relief is in itself a brand built on the power of laughter to make a difference in people’s lives, and we need that power now, more than ever. As the campaign message reads, “Whoever we are. Whatever our background. Whatever our differences, laughter unites us all and it can make a real difference to people’s lives. Laughter is a superpower and one we all possess.”

For Gordon this superpower can start with the smallest of acts: “This campaign is all about how we all have the ability to make a real difference by just doing small things like wearing a Red Nose and laughing at the TV.”

Who doesn’t need a laugh right now?

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