Boomer Humor

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Looking for a new business opportunity? Don't think high tech. How about a business as ordinary as men's underwear? Don't laugh-it's got hidden possibilities. Nick Graham, founder of Joe Boxer, Inc., has done for underwear what Frank "it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" Perdue did for boneless breasts. Like Perdue, Graham uses humor to turn a plain vanilla product into a brand loaded with personality and attitude.

Joe Boxer underwear is to be experienced, not simply worn. Imagine Dad opening a gift box to find a smiley-faced pair of boxer shorts staring up at him. Better yet, imagine Mom and Dad aboard Virgin Atlantic, flying round-trip to London for free just for buying five pairs of Joe Boxer shorts. Graham teamed up with Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson for one of the most whimsical promotions of the decade. It sounds crazy, but it worked. Briefs flew off Macy's shelves, and Branson filled five jumbo jets.

The role of humor in advertising has been hotly debated, copiously studied, and often criticized. But you can't argue with Joe Boxer's growth from a $1,000 investment in a wacky line of men's underwear in 1985 to a $100 million international line of tongue-in-cheek underwear for the whole family today. Graham got his big break when Macy's bought his entire initial inventory, including one edition in red tartan plaid with a detachable raccoon tail.

The number-one challenge in advertising today is breaking through the clutter, and humor is one of the best clutter-busting tools around. Humor works in advertising because it offers universal views of the human condition, says Barry Day, director of Creative Production for the Interpublic Companies ad agency conglomerate.

In many industries, not much can be said about a product to distinguish it from competing products in a rational way. By creating an association between a product and humanistic values, humor makes a product stand out from its competition, according to Interpublic's Day.

LAUGHING AWAY PROBLEMS Humor can turn a product that violates conventional views into a runaway success. Bill Bernbach's "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen during the 1960s is an early successful example. Current ads announcing that the 1990s version of the Bug "has heat" echo Bernbach's genius.

Humor draws consumers to a brand for the same reasons that make funny people popular, says Malinda Julien, account planner of New York ad agency Merkley Newman Harty. Humor gives brand a fun "personality," an attribute that can be useful for a brand in trouble.

Jack-in-the-Box's ad agency Chiat Day even used humor to rebuild sales after the company served tainted hamburger meat to customers. The clown icon featured in the company's early marketing was brought back, this time with the founder's face. He was shown blowing up the board room for removing him from advertising. Humorous self-effacement helped redeem consumer confidence in the brand.

Miller Lite's sagging beer sales were reversed by Minneapolis agency Fallon McElligott's ads "brought to you by Dick," a geeky-looking copywriter. These ads lampooned traditional-advertising tactics, attracting the attention of consumers who were tired of messages that constantly tout product features.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that the Internet plays a major role in the renaissance of humor. Boston University history professor Joseph Boskin told the Journal that humor is one of the few tools Americans can use to mend their fraying national fabric. The success of the Comedy Central cable channel, improv theaters and comedy bar chains all point to a renewed interest in humor.

COPING BY CHUCKLING But the boom in humor could also have something to do with an aging population. Abraham Maslow claimed that people tend to adopt a more comedic view of life in higher states of maturity. Humor helps one adjust to what the young have yet to acknowledge: there is little that we can really control, so the best strategy is to cope. Maslow found that mature individuals can extract mirth from life's littlest and most benign situations-from the sort of nothingness that turned "Seinfeld" into a television landmark. The genius and charm of "Seinfeld" lay in letting the characters put themselves down.

Many brands seeking growth in multinational markets worry about how to create standard images that carry across various ethnic groups. Denise Slattery, marketing vice president of Joe Boxer, says her company has no such concern: "Humor is an international language that makes it relatively easy to produce a comic image that cuts across cultural barriers."

One of the funniest scenes in Joe Boxer's briefs history was a fashion show in Reykjavik, Iceland. Facing the challenge of getting fashion writers interested in the latest in undercoverings, Joe Boxer chartered a plane for 200 fashion writers to go to Iceland for the wrapup session of a New York seasonal fashion show. Svelte models displayed the latest in the company's designs, including a new "virtual bra" which consisted of the model cupping her hands over otherwise bare breasts. The writers were later treated to a private party at the residence of the President of Iceland.

Tactics like these raise basic questions about advertising's best practices. Should advertising entertain or sell? Does being funny run the risk that the entertainment will overshadow the product? And does being funny aid attentiveness, comprehension, and recall? It does and it will, if you do it right.

People in midlife and older respond to humor that helps them cope with the world as it is. After three decades of often tumultuous social change, the change warriors of the 1960s now want to sit back, relax, and not be bothered with big issues. While humor preferences rarely if ever show up in psychographic profiles of consumers, humor does play a major role in consumers' attitudes and lifestyle behavior. But not all humor works in the same way, and an unfunny ad is worse than no ad at all.

Absurd humor, clever wordplay, and self-deprecating asides are potent ways to get the attention of more mature audiences. Sarcasm and jokes made at another's expense are popular with younger audiences, but they are more likely to backfire with more affluent, powerful older consumers. Miller Lite misfired when it ran an ad that showed an elderly couple passionately making out on a couch. The ad was meant to be funny to a young, male, beer-drinking audience. Instead, it offended millions of older beer drinkers who enjoy sex and don't like to be ridiculed.

With maturity also comes empathy, which is the ability to identify and understand another's situation, feelings, and motives. To an empathetic mind, pratfalls and put-downs are more likely to seem cruel, prejudiced, or worst of all-not funny. So if you're using humor to get the attention of today's more mature marketplace, sprinkle it with care and empathy. Used correctly, humor is like a pair of Joe Boxer shorts: a hidden advantage.

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