Using Humor as a Business Tactic: How to Know When to Cross the Line

Originally Published Jan, 6, 2017

For business owners, it’s tempting to play things on the safe side and strive to never, ever offend a potential customer. Controversy is a good way to get attention, but many companies veer firmly away from any risk of that attention being negative.

This is a particularly tricky and nebulous issue when it comes to humor. Even professional comedians seem split on whether the best jokes are the ones that don’t hurt anybody or whether upsetting a few delicate sensibilities is the sign of a job well done. Is it worth the laugh and the social share if you alienate or outrage one person for every person you amuse?

So what’s a business to do? Some products and services just fit naturally with humorous advertising, and some people genuinely do believe that any publicity is good publicity.

Decide Whether Humor Is Worth the Risk

It’s a question I’ve grappled with in my business, especially when it comes to our video marketing campaigns. When we set out to create content for our audience, we didn’t just want a bland, informative “features, functions and benefits” kind of tone. We wanted to provide value — to amuse. When you set out to use humor in your marketing, strive to be edgy, entertaining and memorable. Here are some factors to consider when considering how closely to toe the line.

Is the tone of the ad in line with the tone you want for your entire brand?

We knew we wanted to be a funny, tongue-in-cheek kind of company right from the very beginning. Our brand was never meant to be serious, and we knew from other successful companies before us that having a playful brand could be an effective way to connect with people. If slightly offensive humor isn’t consistent with your entire brand, don’t fake it. You have to own these ads, so if you aren’t ready to commit to that tone and it doesn’t reflect your corporate culture, don’t confuse your customers with a mixed message.

Will the ad differentiate you in a valuable way from other ads in the same ecosystem?

When we launched the Carnivore Club crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, we went with a somewhat unusual video. Where most people talked about their founders, their inspirational story, and what they hoped to accomplish, we got right to the heart of the matter with an irreverent video called “Man Vs. Vegan.” The ad absolutely ticked off some people, but it was just offensive enough to be funny and memorable — so memorable that we made it onto the IndieGoGo list of most interesting new campaigns, and were promoted to all their subscribers. Without that exposure, we wouldn’t have been able to reach the audience we did, and it gave us the critical mass we needed to successfully launch in the U.S.

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Tim Ray is a serial entrepreneur focused in e-commerce and technology with a passion for creating cool brands and innovative business models. He is currently the Founder and CEO of Carnivore Club, the premium subscription service for foodies who love charcuterie; and, a site with awesome curated gift crates for men.

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