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Humorous print advertising in the U.S. dates back to the 1880s or possibly earlier. But through much of the 20th century, humor in advertising was regarded with suspicion, and this view only began to change in the early 1980s.

Humor became a major executional tactic only with the advent of broadcasting. In a 1995 survey of U.S. media, only 9.9% of consumer magazine ads were found to have a humorous intent; in TV, the finding was 24.4%, and in radio, 30.6%.

The first radio program to integrate humorous commercials into the show was the "Fibber McGee & Molly Show," produced for Johnson Wax by Needham, Louis & Brorby, Chicago. The announcer, Harlow Wilcox, became a regular member of the cast who would drop by the McGee home in the middle of the program. The premise was always that Fibber McGee knew a commercial was coming but that he did not know how Mr. Wilcox would work it in.

Bob Hope kidded his radio sponsor Pepsodent to the point where he would drop references to his sponsor into his motion pictures. Among the best-integrated commercials were those done by Jack Benny, first for Jell-O ( Young & Rubicam) and after 1944 for Lucky Strike (Ruthrauff & Ryan and Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn).

As network radio declined in the 1950s and sponsors lost control of programming production, formats containing commercial "spots" for several sponsors developed, allowing practitioners, in effect, to create free-standing 60-second programs.

At the time, the comedy team of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding took humorous advertising to a new level. They not only performed low-key, funny commercials on their own shows, but they also made themselves available to other advertisers for creating and performing ad campaigns.

Starting in the early 1950s with spots for Piel's beer, the two portrayed the characters Bert and Harry Piel. They formed Goulding-Elliott-Greybar Production as a kind of creative boutique. The D.P. Brother Agency in Detroit retained Messrs. Elliott and Goulding on behalf of General Motors Corp.'s Guardian Maintenance Service for a campaign that continued for nearly a decade. Other Goulding-Elliott-Greybar clients included General Electric lamps (via BBDO), Nationwide Insurance ( Ogilvy & Mather) and the Radio Advertising Bureau.

The second major innovator in radio advertising humor was Stan Freberg, who came to prominence in 1951. He formed Freberg Ltd. in the late 1950s to market his talents as a satirist to advertisers. A typical Freberg spot took a familiar premise and played it as a joke, working in selling points almost as an afterthought. For Kenyon & Eckhardt, Freberg sold Prince spaghetti by creating a parody of the James Bond film "Goldfinger." Other Freberg efforts since 1956 have included such brands as Contadina tomato paste, Chun King chow mein, Meadowgold Dairies, Sunsweet prunes and the United Presbyterian Church.

In the 1970s and '80s, the most in-demand radio humorists in U.S. advertising were Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis, whose Radio Ranch Productions was based in Chicago. Messrs. Orkin and Berdis created and performed their own commercials in an easygoing, naturalistic manner. Unlike Mr. Freberg, they avoided satire and based their commercials on small situations that emphasized recognizable human foibles. Messrs. Orkin and Berdis split up as a team in the early 1980s, but Mr. Orkin continued on his own. Other boutiques specializing in radio humor include the Chuck Blore Co., Joy Radio and Radio Radio!


When World War II ended, TV expanded rapidly. By the early 1960s, Freberg Ltd. was producing highly regarded humorous TV spots, such as a minimusical for H.J. Heinz Co. that starred dancer Ann Miller. Freberg's work garnered numerous creative awards and established humor as a viable TV strategy.

Humor's role in TV advertising continued to grow. Alka-Seltzer's spots from the 1960s and '70s ("Atsa some spicy meatball" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing"), the work of Joe Sedelmaier for Federal Express and Wendy's ("Where's the beef?"), Budweiser's frog-hating lizards and other humorous TV spots became part of American popular culture. Indeed, for Super Bowl commercials, typically the highest-priced broadcast time, humor has become the dominant strategy.

A survey of executives at the largest ad agencies in the U.S. and U.K. revealed that both groups generally favor the use of humor in advertising; the British executives, in particular, were proponents of humor. The two groups of executives agreed that the best use of humor was in ads targeting younger adults, while the least appropriate use was in ads aimed at older audiences.

Although there are some examples of increased persuasion linked to humor, it appears that a humorous approach does not offer significant advantages over a more serious one when persuasion is the goal. Nor does humor enhance source credibility-quite the opposite in some circumstances.

The nature of the product also affects the appropriateness of a humorous treatment. Humor appears to be more successful in ads for existing rather than new products. It is used much more often and appears to be most effective for so-called low-involvement products (e.g., household cleansers, soft drinks, lightbulbs) in general and, in particular, for inexpensive treats such as snack foods, candy and beer.

Risky business

Perhaps more than any other form of commercial speech, the humorous broadcast spot has become a part of American popular culture. Widespread use notwithstanding, humor has inherent risks. As noted above, it is more appropriate for certain product categories than others. Also, it is more likely to gain attention and be liked than to create credibility or be persuasive.

More important, humor has the potential to cause negative effects. It can be offensive—indeed, most humor walks a fine line between funny and offensive. In 1999, Just for Feet ran an ad in the Super Bowl that was intended to be humorous; however, many considered the ad-which depicted a barefoot African runner being hunted down by white hunters and forced to wear the marketer's brand of running shoe-racially insensitive and offensive. Just for Feet sued Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency that created the ad, for malpractice and, in January 2000, filed for bankruptcy protection.

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