• Get Your Story Straight

Did You Really Mean to Say That? Make Sure Your Message Matches Your Meaning

“People do not buy from clowns.”

— Advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins (1923)

Are you using humor effectively in your marketing, or are you just clowning around?

Here’s what I mean:

A national TV commercial shows a lawyer at a whiteboard, scribbling intently and trying to explain the concept of “no fee unless we win” to a man who resembles Albert Einstein. The genius doesn’t get it.

This ad sure doesn’t seem to like lawyers. This lawyer is so confusing and inept that even the smartest man who ever lived can’t figure it out. Is it an ad for a tort reform campaign?

Nope. It’s an ad for a prominent personal injury law firm, and the tagline is “You don’t have to be a genius to hire Morgan & Morgan.”


The same firm has an ad in which a man uses a gigantic leaf blower to spray debris all over his neighbor’s yard (and all over the neighbor) while the man shrieks in delight at all that honking-big mechanical power.

Morgan & Morgan’s leaf-blower ad: Size matters, and so does your message (

Tagline: “Size matters.”

Yeah, but in this case, not in a good way. The real message here is that lawyers just come in loud and pushy and make a mess of everything. At the end of the commercial, the leaves aren’t really cleaned up; they’re just dumped on someone else to become the other guy’s problem.

Someone should tell Morgan & Morgan that the only things people hate more than personal-injury lawyers are leaf blowers. And they’re both in the same ad!

Let’s not even get into the fact that “no fee unless we win” isn’t exactly a unique value proposition for a personal injury firm.

I agree these ads are funny. But are they really saying what Morgan & Morgan wants them to say?

Humor should work with your message, not against it, and bring the audience to your side.

That’s what the research says, too.

“The first task of humor is to attract the consumers’ attention through an interesting, entertaining, provocative, unexpected, sudden and memorable message,” the Journal of Economics and Business Studies declares in “Humor in Advertising” (2017). “Humor aims to help consumers in the decision-buying process. However, humor can cause negative side effects if it insults, is used in an inappropriate manner or is too excessive. Recent studies show that companies are successful if they use ‘intelligent’ humor that is related to the products’ nature and function.”

By that measure, the Morgan & Morgan ads fail.

Not all of their ads fall flat. One has a comically oversized airplane seat and a bag of nuts the size of a small child. Another features a couple in bed, snuggling into a virtually endless blanket. These work because they align with the product Morgan & Morgan sells: not airplane seats or blankets, of course, but comfort and security. The leaf blower ad is just selling annoyance.

Dr. Rick for Progressive (

One company that’s nailing it is the Progressive insurance company, which has a brilliant series you’ve probably seen and enjoyed: Dr. Rick, “parenta-life coach,” whose seminars help people who’ve become homeowners and are now “turning into their parents.” He gently (and not so gently) guides them away from their dad jokes, smarmy inspirational sayings, and resistance to technology.

The Dr. Rick ads work because they’re just plain funny, but the laughs come because we recognize ourselves – or our actual parents – in them. That’s the best kind of humor; not cleverness for its own sake but laughs that take us somewhere honest.

Progressive has its share of misses. Check out Commercials I Hate on Reddit, where you’ll find a constant stream of posts raging against Flo and the other weird Progressive characters. Many people, including me, love Flo, Jamie, and the rest, showing how subjective and personal humor can be. (I’m going to assume there are people out there who don’t agree that Liberty Mutual’s “Limu Emu and Doug” campaign is the most infuriatingly stupid series ever conceived.)

Should you avoid trying to be funny in marketing messages? Of course not! It’s smart to make your customers feel good by giving them a laugh. You just have to make sure there’s more to your message than yuks, that the humor serves the message rather than being drowned out by it.

And oh yeah – try to actually be funny.