Gretchen Rubin and Oracle recently teamed up on a study that highlights some curious facts: 91% percent of people globally prefer brands with humor, yet 95% of business leaders fear using humorous marketing in consumer interactions. The report also found that 45% of people globally have not felt true happiness for more than two years.

“The Happiness Report” found that 90% of people are more likely to remember ads using humor and 72% of people would choose brands that use humor over the competition. Despite this, only 20% of brands report using humor in marketing and 18% report running online ads using humor.

This leaves one wondering: why the mismatch between what brand chiefs are willing to do with their official “voice” and proven customer preferences around brand humor? Perhaps it has something to do with the long list of great creative marketing and brand ideas that fell flat or created backfire that could easily have been avoided.

Here are six tried-and-true themes and categories of ads using humor in marketing that the internet loves – that can safely be embraced in advertising and branded marketing content to add a viral/fun element to your brand:


1. Brand humor with pet content

Wishbone, Gidget the Taco Bell dog, Chance from “Homeward Bound” – there’s a reason why our companions have perpetual appeal in media and marketing. The original internet cat meme continues to find new incarnations, with the crypto community embracing “Big Floppa” as one recent viral example. WeRateDogs grew from a college student’s dorm room project to raising over $1M to support dogs in need and partnering with well-funded brands in less than 6 years. Cat photos perennially generate high engagement, and simple captions associating them with an unexpected category (anthropomorphism, typesetting, etc) perform well with audiences. Your company likely has some stellar models built into your employee base. 


2. Humorous ads for common misunderstandings in the workplace

Customers and followers love to feel that they are “clued in.” Self-deprecating humor, especially one that highlights the reader or the audience’s knowledge of a particular technical subject, is a sure-fire way to imbue some personality into what might otherwise be a dry explanation. Just be sure to keep it clean and unbiased.


3. Using humor in marketing around misunderstandings of a popular trend

Stephen Colbert has created loyal fans by playing to the struggles he experiences keeping up with Internet trends (aka ‘Dad humor’). A spoof that he created of 2021’s Tiktok hit “The Wellerman” showcasing his age and inability to track memes not only delighted viewers, but spawned multiple “duet” videos from fans on Tiktok.

4. Brand humor using rivalries

Everyone likes a rivalry, whether that’s rooting for their favorite NFL, MLB or college team, or simply voting on ice cream flavors. Think of the most outlandish, opposite of nature, and/or ridiculous combinations/face offs for pure brand humor and delight. Some viral examples include 2017’s Museum Wars on Twitter or the Dec 2019 tweet from Netflix about the brand’s social media accounts and comments that may be misunderstood/taken out of context. Airtable’s out-of-home advertising agency has added a frisson of “rivalry” to their “This is How” campaign by placing billboards near those of competitors.


Image of 2 billboards in city, first by Clickup and the second by competitor Airtable.

5. Humorous ads with classic movie and TV references

As the Golden Girls taught us, it’s important to say “Thank you for being a friend.” Seinfeld gave us cultural treasures like Festivus and “Scandals and animals.” Musical numbers from “White Christmas” like “Gee, I wish I was back in the Army” incorporate a number of these themes like rivalries and misunderstandings, along with alliteration. Just don’t get stuck on a window ledge like Lucille Ball or make a fashion faux pas like Jerry Seinfeld. And whatever you do, don’t tell your coworker or customer that their dancing makes you want to dry heave or that there’s any chance they might be “fighting a losing game.” 


6. Ads using humor through: Ducks?

Not your average pet, and a source of perhaps surprisingly cute content, short-necked waterfowl have been blowing up the internet. Paper Duck: Daisy to Wrinkle the SeDUCKtive Duck to runner ducks to the Ducks in Space all show how the last 18 months have been a gold-mine for humorous marketing featuring marine birds that are accruing millions of views on the internet. It’s the perfect marriage of pure delight, animal-themed content, and the aquatic partner of viral trends like The Wellerman. The internet loves a duck!

Image of Aflac duck with goggle in in pool holding cash in hand.

As you can see, there are lots of positive themes and ways to use humor in marketing, where you can easily embrace and incorporate your brand’s voice or content. These are just a handful of humorous marketing themes with near-perpetual appeal that can help your brand stand out in the top 5% that confidently embrace brand humor and add joy and delight to your audience and customers’ experience.

About the Author

Maura Lafferty is an influencer relations specialist, with a particular focus on media outreach over social channels. Maura has over 14 years' experience in public relations, and relationships with media working in national, California, and Silicon Valley newsrooms.