Thursday, July 06, 2006


4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri examines the deathless statement from an iconic Ad guru and checks out its validity in today’s hugely, humour-driven ad space...

Way back in the late eighties, when I was closely associated with a big ad agency, I got a call one morning from our most pompous, egoistical and self-absorbed clients, inviting me out to lunch at a ‘fancy place’. I was totally zonked and enquired, hesitantly, the reason/occasion. “It’s serious stuff, Lahiri. Be sure to be there on time. You ad guys...”

I hotfooted to the joint ten minutes before time. He arrived soon after, flashed an approving tight smile, motioned me to sit, ordered for the both of us, lit up his pipe, stretched back and got ready to lay it on the line. “Advertising is going to the dogs young man, with damn ganwaars (illiterates) coming from the boondocks threatening to break in with their absurd, down- market (imagine?!), Hinglish stuff”!

He paused to take a drag of his pipe and waited for the bearer to leave after placing our drinks on the table, before continuing. “No taste! No class! And to make matters worse, they dare to deploy humour. Advertising – which is selling – is very, very serious stuff, dear boy. As the master has said, “No one buys from clowns.” Well, as it goes, do they?

Today, a good decade and a half later, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at what that conceited, tunnel viewed bozo said, because humour, fun, the light touch, has become the breath of life in a lot of the advertising we see... and advertainment is pretty much the new lingua franca in the communication delivery mode. Why? “Because humour disarms and makes one more acceptation of certain thoughts and images that could be hard to take in a serious discourse...,” says the flamboyant and brilliant ad man, George Louis. He has constantly hit out at “scientific fools, marketing windbags, stiff-ass bureaucrats, research fascists and pompous biggies,” because he believes a lack of humanity (read ‘humour’) kills great communication.

Back home, Louis finds a huge ra-ra constituency, totally rooting for the ha-ha factor to attract, interest, provoke, desire and trigger the purchase intent in the consumer universe targeted. Ad film-maker, Prahlad Kakkar, who began his foray into ad films by providing (at that time) a total break from conventional reason to develop audacious tongue-in-cheek, whacko stuff (Remember Ketchup, “It’s different!” ad?), believes humour is a great leveller because it breaks down barriers and distances in one fell swoop. Most of his stuff, even today, has a definite stamp of smart, visual wit. Prasoon Joshi (whose Thanda Matlab Thande Ka Tadka, Happydent White ads plug humour with all cylinders firing) defines humour as a social lubricant that’s easy to catch and hang on to because it’s the most basic emotion. It comes easier than sorrow or grief. Successful TV Commercials (TVCs) that have hit the humour button in the past include Compaq Presario, Fevicol,, Live-in Jeans, Pepsi’s Mallika ad and Centrefresh, among others.

Perceptive Communication’s people around the world often find “Compression” a good way of getting the point across in an effective manner. Arnold Schwarzenegger was once famously described as a guy “looking like a bunch of walnuts wrapped in a condom!” The writer confessed that he wasn’t consciously trying to be funny, but only endeavouring to convey something in the least number of words. If compression leads to humour, then humour leads to smile. Legend has it that a Chinese hospital reported a dramatic drop in the number of complaints after instructing their staff to show at least eight teeth while smiling!

On a serious note, the reason why humour is so powerful in advertising is really very basic: It’s a bridge that links the brand to the consumer, because laughter is the shortest distance between two people... and a smile, really, is that amazing meeting of minds. It signifies a positive and physical feedback from your audience. Wit invites participation. Humour ensures higher recall & remembrance, and triggers word-of-mouth communication as no other mode.

Incidentally, the best jokes aren’t based on imagination, but on observation of real people. See how they speak, gesture, react, joke, even kiss and oh, how they never look at each other in a lift. The best and funniest ads invariably happen when the joke comes from the product and could not exist without the product. The best jokes, therefore, do not automatically translate to a great and memorable ad. It has been noticed that beyond any sales tool, humour invokes a special kind of collective intimacy that is hard to match.

Humour not only wins truckloads of awards at the classy festivals, but also produces sweet music at the cash counter. Says Santosh Desai, “In earlier times, the 8 Reasons Why You Should Buy This, delivered in BBC-style English, worked. Today, it doesn’t. People are not looking for gyan, but fun, entertainment, laugh.” Michael Porter, the father of generic competitive strategies, had enunciated that to radically gain market share within any industry, one could either be a cost leader or be a product differentiator. But the killer comes now. If one is not able to be either, then the best strategy would be to ensure that your product has the highest brand recall. And humour has been found to be the most effective tactic to support this brand recall.

In the end, with due respect to the revered Claude Hopkins, in a world brutalised by pain, poverty and human suffering, clowns are the new superstars of our times, because all said and done, even the most hardened sceptic and cynic will agree that humour, Mr. Anderson, is better than tumour!