Take this month's theme, humor in ads: one man's daringly hilarious Outpost.com campaign proved to be another's tasteless example of dot-com profligacy. Meanwhile, the same agency's Fox Sports Net commercials - equally brutal and arguably racist - took the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes International Advertising Festival to almost universal acclaim. The jury decided "OK, they may have been a tad racist, but they were so funny, it didn't matter."
This "Xtreme" humor is the new buzz-phrase. The heightened violence in the ads supposedly negates the impact of that violence; the "cartoon" racism makes the ads non-racist. Perhaps - although not too many Chinese and Turks will have seen them to judge.
But ridiculing difference is universal: to the French, Belgian jokes are hilarious. Irish "Paddy" jokes crack Brits up. Argentine jokes tickle Brazilians. Los Angelenos and New Yorkers find each other side-splitting. Italians are fair game globally, because they pose no threat to anyone. Canadians and Australians, likewise.
If Xtreme is a new phenomenon, tragedy is a more classical element of comedy. It essentially involves making fun of someone else's misfortunes. Humor will therefore always conflict with the politically-correct mores of the day. The only sure thing is that those mores change with time - think Benny Hill. Will "Whassup?" be funny 10 years from now? Will Fox?
And there is a danger in debating these strands of comedy that we lose sight of a more fundamental requirement of advertising than to entertain: selling. Just because a commercial is funny, and therefore likeable, does that mean it is good? Arguably "Whassup?" needed the weight of Budweiser's media spend to make the joke work. Many brands have foundered on the rocks of trying too hard to be funny and losing their own essence - just look at Miller's recent history. Be funny, yes, but be relevant.
So, why does all this matter? At a time when surveys around the world suggest that advertising's popularity is on the wane with the general public, with the threat of TiVo still real, and with clients proving how little faith they truly have in advertising by slashing budgets at the first hint of recession, there was never a more important time to be debating humor in advertising. Clearly, there is a correlation between the likability of advertising and its selling potency, but it would be a major mistake to believe that just because advertising is funny, it is good. That would be the ad industry disappearing into its own navel. And it's been doing that for far too long already.
Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity