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Finding the funny in b-to-b ads

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An executive hurries down an office corridor. One of his two lieutenants, racing beside him, points to his head and says, "It’s all right here, sir" just as he walks into an open file drawer—improbably placed at head height—knocking himself out. In the next scene, the other assistant, crouching beside a long boardroom table, assures his seated boss: "Don’t worry, sir, he told me everything." But his hand slips, his jaw slams against the table, and he, too, is out of the frame. The executive, looking helpless, says nothing.

This 2002, 30-second TV spot, created by Young & Rubicam, New York, for Computer Associates’ BrightStor software, never failed to get a get a laugh out of me. Has slapstick ever done a better job illustrating the importance of data backup software? I don’t think so.

"There was a time when b-to-b was thought of as very serious and austere," says Chris Wall, senior partner and co-creative director, Ogilvy & Mather, New York. Wall, one of 10 individuals we profile in this year’s Who’s Who in B-to-B Special Report (p. 24), has delivered a slew of humorous, apt and memorable TV spots on behalf of longtime client IBM Corp. My all-time favorites are the "E-business on demand" spots, which debuted in late 2002. They featured eccentric inventors bringing a variety of silver bullets to a boardroom-a time machine, magic beans, a Genie lamp. Because we know these gizmos don’t exist, we naturally gravitate to the real-world solutions offered by IBM. (In last month’s issue, celebrating BtoB’s first five years, the Chasers column likewise picked this campaign as one of the five best since 2000.)

Humorous campaigns about a complex industrial or technical concept can backfire. If they appear to trivialize the subject, they can offend the very audience they seek to amuse. An even worse fate, of course, is when the joke is lame, inept, flat; when it’s unfunny.

That’s why, I think, we give special kudos to humor when it’s done well in b-to-b advertising. Because the best of these ads, even as they wink at us, show they know what they’re talking about, that there’s something important beneath the levity-something we ought to know, think about or do.

Ellis Booker is editor of BtoB and BtoB’s Media Business. He can be reached at ebooker@crain.com.

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