The most used “shtick” in advertising, and the one that goes wrong most often, is humour. You have all seen cringe-worthy commercials that make you wish you could just bop whoever wrote it on the head, or go off and poke about in the fridge while it’s on. Writers of commercials that use comedic techniques have to be quite skilled to pull it off. Humour in advertising for the professions is rare, though. Pompous ads, schmaltzy ads, dull-as-ditchwater ads, doom-prophet ads – all are frequent. But funny ads? Nope. I’m afraid people in the professions have a well-documented reputation – which by now has become meme fodder – for being mirthless and unable to laugh at themselves. Perhaps engineers (especially engineers with cats) and geologists (especially geologists and rocks) are the exception.

Comedic devices

Geology joke by famous scientific cartoonist, XKCD, alias Randall Munroe. Well, I think it’s funny. (

That’s a pity, because like the humorist and scientist “XKCD” proves, the sciences and scientists can be very amusing. And there are so many comedic devices, or ways of expressing or evoking humour, to choose from. Which ones will work for what depends on the culture and the language of the person you want to make laugh. What’s funny in China might not be funny in Canada (with the exception of physical humour and slapstick, which is universally amusing.) This explains why humour, when translated, works better when it is completely recreated in the new language.

Each device works best, depending on how the joke is presented – as a picture or video, spoken, as text, or physically demonstrated. I have yet to get a joke written in code or presented as a taste or smell. Is it even possible to have a collection of smells that will make people laugh? Can anything taste funny – as in funny ha-ha, not funny peculiar? Ever seen inherently funny code? I haven’t.

Pick a device or combination of devices

  1. repetition
  2. hyperbole / exaggeration
  3. understatement
  4. double entendre (saying something that has two meanings, often one is rude)
  5. oxymorons (an idea that contradicts itself)
  6. pun (intentionally confusing two homophones)
  7. juxtaposition / incongruity
  8. combining opposites
  9. mistaken identity
  10. black humour ( taboo, shocking, gruesome or death references)
  11. blue humour (sexual tension or innuendo)
  12. dry humour / deadpanning (all sorts of humour, delivered without emotion or passion – or exclamation marks)
  13. coincidence
  14. surprise
  15. irony
  16. sarcasm
  17. farce / Improbable coincidences
  18. attribution swapping
  19. extremism / screwballing
  20. parody / spoofing (to imitate, make fun of, or comment on a work by creating a less flattering version of the original)
  21. satire (poking fun at society or politics by exaggerating particular aspects)
  22. clowning / misunderstanding (deliberately misinterpreting clear information)
  23. anticipating a flawed plan
  24. acting like a fish out of water
  25. self-deprecation
  26. role reversal
  27. absurdity / surrealism (magical thinking, situations beyond this world, outrageous things that are described as normal)
  28. observational / situational comment (describes an over-idealized version of the world – the joke is that the situation or an aspects of it is not perfect)
  29. highbrow (containing “intellectual” references that are extremely obscure or obtuse)
  30. physical or slapstick humour (works best when presented physically or using video)

A funny commercial that works

Avoiding the trend of flopped funny ads is this TV commercial that stars the very tall, handsome and deliciously brooding actor with the killer smile, Idris Elba, recently named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive”. The commercial was first aired on Jan. 30, 2019, a few days ahead of the Super Bowl, which takes place on Sunday, February 3, 2019. Squarespace had featured an advertisement each of the last five Super Bowls, the company opted out this year and launched this ad instead.

Sophisticated combination of devices

Regardless of whether you do or do not like the product, the platform or the actor, the combination of the squeaky voiceover and Idris Elba “singing” is extremely startling. In the few seconds that this commercial is long, director Spike Jonze (yes, him, no less) has used juxtaposition or incongruity, a bit of farce due to the unlikely nature of these opposites combining, and, for good measure, implied self-deprecation, considering how un-childlike Elba, now at the pinnacle of his career, is. He has presumably long passed the point of asking “what will I be?” but is a good example of how famous and accomplished someone can become. Initially, you feel sentiment, even pathos, but then you realize the incongruity and amusement creeps in. Best of all, the ad is memorable enough for me to have remembered both the name, Idris Elba, and the advertiser, Squarespace, even though I have only seen it once. Now that’s what I call effective.

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