Ah, the Super Bowl—four-plus hours of nonstop hilarious ads, punctuated by whatever that football thing is between them.
We think a lot at CollegeHumor about the science of what makes funny funny. And, naturally we love the Super Bowl—that special time when almost every advertiser tries to make us remember them by making us laugh.
But some try too hard, some pull punches, some punch down and some pour on so much sugar to make the pitch go down that you end up spitting the whole thing out. This got us thinking: What makes an ad actually funny? So, we gathered together a panel of CollegeHumor's senior writers and creatives to dissect our favorite Super Bowl ads and see what kind of comedic lessons future advertisers could take away.
- Mike Trapp, head writer and cast member, CollegeHumor Originals, @MikeWTrapp
- Katie Marovitch, writer/cast member, CollegeHumor Originals, @KatieMarovitch
- Rekha Shankar, writer/cast member, CollegeHumor Originals, @rekhalshankar
- Raphael Chestang, writer/cast member, CollegeHumor Originals, @ChestangRaphael
- Thom Woodley, executive creative director and head of branded content
Lesson 1: Don't be afraid to make a little fun of yourself
Radio Shack: "The Phone Call" (2014)
This ad really shouldn't be funny. It's built on a formulaic joke—"the 80s called, they want their X back"—and then immediately it turns into a rolling punchline of cameos: the "making a semi-obscure reference is enough to be funny" school of comedy. But it does work, and it's not because it's getting ALF some much-needed screen time. It's because the brand is admitting, if not shouting, its biggest weakness—in this case, a very outdated look, name and reputation. Not many brands have the bravery and sense of humor to use their precious Super Bowl spot time to mock themselves. If you try to make your brand too cool for school, we'll probably laugh at you, but if you show yourself to be vulnerable and imperfect, we'll laugh with you. And maybe even visit your store.
Lesson 2: Humor is based on the unexpected
Old Spice: "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" (2010)
Ok, so this famous ad debuted online just prior to the Super Bowl. It's not an actual Super Bowl spot. But due to its smash-hit success, we're including it here with props to P&G's creative team for masterfully eclipsing the on-air spots.
By the standards of today's culture, this famous ad can be considered a little sexist ("don't let your man smell like a woman" somehow manages to talk down to both men and women). But at the time it was groundbreaking, and (most of us think) it's clever, memorable and still funny. Isaiah Mustafa's pitch-perfect delivery of a ceaseless onslaught of ridiculous dialogue works with the constant visual trickery to string us along, and leaves us enjoying the ad even though the brand is prominent throughout. There is never a moment of breathing room in this ad; we are never not surprised.
Lesson 3: Aim for dumb-funny, not dumbed down
Sprint, "Locker Room" (2006)
The core of this idea is tech features, and the often ridiculous cocksmanship that goes with people bragging about their latest toy. There's a lot that could be said about gadget competition, but instead Sprint is content to let it play out in the most simple, visual and dumb-funny way that it could. This ends up heightening the scene without hitting us over the head with the product (though the same can't be said for the talent). It even makes us want to see more dumb "uses" these characters might come up with for the phone. And who ever says they'd love to see a "series" of a commercial?
Lesson 4: It can be okay to rely on cheap gimmicks, if it's to say something valuable
Volkswagen: "The Force" (2011)
Every year, countless advertisers use nostalgia, borrowed interest and the aww factor to try to warm our cold cynical hearts (but really to lighten our wallets). Most of these attempts end up completely transparent cash grabs that don't tell us much about the brand. And this one has the trifecta of obvious elements—nostalgia, characters from the nation's most popular movie franchise, and a cute kid (I mean, presumably cute, since we never see his face). Yet, this spot achieves the hat trick of being genuinely funny and heartwarming, and makes the car seem fun too. Why? It's not about cars, it's about childhood and parenthood. It's about the joy of throwing yourself fully into an imagined world, something that every one of us can relate to (and we get to do every day of the week!). And it's about the equally magical satisfaction of surprising your kid and expanding his world. Volkswagen isn't asking us to buy a car, they're asking us to have and make more fun in life, and that's valuable.
(One addendum to this, though, might be "know when to stop." the Force was strong in the initial spot, but subsequent chapters descended into nonsensical non-sequiturs that didn't advance our understanding of the brand, and worse, weren't funny).
Lesson 5: Build the spot around a core of truth, not your brand's name
Budweiser: "Wassup?" campaign (2000 Super Bowl and beyond)
It's telling that the tagline for these ads is "true" because they primarily capture a true and relatable feeling. The weirdness of real friendship: private shorthand lingo, inside jokes, unselfconscious silliness. Then the ad takes that core of truth and exaggerates it to brilliant absurdity—a fever dream of noise and screaming in which every new addition is louder, faster, and coming from more unexpected places. It's structured like a comedy sketch. Also notice that they're not this way because they are drinking a Budweiser—a notion that would feel utterly, insultingly false. Drinking a "Bud" is just something you happen to do when you're hanging out with friends. It's noteworthy that Budweiser is mentioned only twice at the top and once at the end, and only ever as "Bud," the way real people might talk. Would people have loved this ad so much if the long string of "wassups" had been interrupted with even one more mention of Budweiser? We honestly don't think so.
Lesson 6: Show how your brand is great instead of telling us about it
FedEx: "Cast Away" (2004)
Obviously this starts with the audience already understanding the then-recent "Cast Away" reference and Fedex's role in that movie, although that's not strictly necessary to understand the spot. It establishes a character with clear, unshakeable values ("I swore I would deliver it to you, because I work for FedEx") that we understand to be the brand's values as well. The stirring music cues us that we are in for a cathartic tearjerker scene… and then we pull the rug out from under the character with an unexpected twist, revealing that the very thing his ideals wouldn't let him do (open the package) would have saved him years of trouble. As he slumps away, her punchline of "you keep up the good work" doubles as a subconscious reminder that FedEx works well. We come out feeling that FedEx is dedicated to delivery, while only actually hearing the word "FedEx" once.
Lesson 7: Don't try to pretend that you're not advertising
Old Milwaukee: "Will Ferrell" (2013)
Here's a truth advertisers know well, but constantly try to ignore, or disguise: People hate ads. And more than that, they know when they're being advertised to. And they know how much money people pay to create these things that they hate. So why not make an ad that tacitly acknowledges all of those things? This is beauty in simplicity: Will Ferrell walks through a field, cracks open a beer… and the ad cuts off before he can say anything more about the brand. Comedy relies on surprise, and there's nothing more surprising than seeing an advertiser squander their precious thirty seconds of airtime by providing no information about their product except for the name. This is meta comedy—comedy about advertising. But if people already know they're being advertised to, it could feel more honest to embrace that truth, to comment on it, than to try to hide from it, or disguise it. P.S. It's also a regional buy, so it got a lot of publicity without having to shell out the national ad price.
Lesson 8: Map the very mundane to the very intense
Clash of Clans: "Revenge"
This had a simple concept: 'What if a huge action star got deeply passionate about a mobile action game?" This "what if X were like Y" is the most tried and true sketch recipe. The comedy comes from the juxtaposition of Liam Neeson's intense acting ability with something as silly as a phone game. The twist with the employee not knowing his name and taking him out of his monologue was handled really well. We come away thinking three things: Liam Neeson must have a great sense of humor, people really do take their gaming too seriously, and MAN that Clash of Clans game looks fun.
Lesson 9: Let your tagline be the punchline or the solution to the problem
Snickers: "Game" (2010)
This one wins right off the bat for having Betty White and Abe Vigoda in an American commercial, which is something we never thought we'd see. And there's the tension—why are they playing in a muddy football game with a bunch of 20-something dudes? Then they get cartoonishly pummeled, and if we have to tell you why that's funny then maybe we've lost you. But the brilliance here is the entry of the brand. We don't know why Betty White is playing football until halfway through, which is also the first time Snickers shows up. Still, we don't really get the why of it until the ending second, where the tagline "you're not you when you're hungry" becomes the punchline too. It's so economical, to the point and memorable.
Lesson 10: Let us let down our defenses. Then knock us over
Reebok: "Terry Tate" (2001)
Terry Tate feels more like something that you would normally find in a TV show or a movie than a spot (and yes, growing up, some of us quoted his lines and copied his moves while wrestling or playing football). Probably because this ad feels more interested in giving you a laugh than selling you a product. Sure, there's a Reebok logo in the background, and Reebok is quietly mentioned throughout the video, but this isn't selling you on some idea that shoes will change your life. Instead, it's just following through a simple comedic premise: what if simple office missteps were punished with extreme violence and verbal abuse?
This premise COULD get tired, but this is expertly made. We have a logical justification for why this is happening (our hardass boss thinks it's good for productivity). The comedy also sustains itself through surprising shifts in tone, fast-paced editing, and clever framing. But these are all stylistic choices that serve the premise. By the end, we know the guy playing solitaire is going to get his ass handed to him. We just don't know exactly when, or what direction its coming from. And when it does come, it's so fast we're STILL surprised.
As we've said throughout, people go into an ad resistant. "Okay, what is this trying to sell me now?" By treating your ad like a sketch, and not overwhelming or undercutting the comedy with too much product, you can get the audience to let down their defenses. And then you can knock them down (Terry Tate style).
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