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Avoid the Cringe: How to Use Humor Effectively in Marketing

What’s the difference between clever humor and cringey humor in marketing? Well, it depends on who you ask. But there are a few guardrails you can put in place to make sure you’re staying on the right side of the line.

Humor works

The good news is, if you do it right, humor works. If you’ve got the right product and approach, it can make your campaign much more memorable, not to mention increase the likelihood of virality. 

Research from Oracle and author/podcaster Gretchen Rubin titled “The Happiness Report” found that 90% of people are more likely to remember ads that are funny, and 72% of people would choose a humorous brand over the competition. 

Humor is disarming. Laughter connects people and helps us relate to one another. After all, shining a light on shared experiences in a new way is what makes many comedians successful.

But remember – you’re not a comedian. You’re a brand. So to do humor effectively, you’ve got to use it right. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re writing ad copy, creating a video or communicating with your audience and want to weave in humor:

1. Understand your audience.

This could not be more important. We’re not talking surface-level demographics here. You really have to understand who your target audience is – their background, their sensibility, their shared experiences, how they see themselves, how they see your brand. Think about your messaging from their point of view, especially if it is different from your own. You could even go as far as to do market research to learn more about your target audience and what they think about your brand or industry. (Knowing your audience is important for all effective marketing, so this will be beneficial in many ways long-term.) Understanding their point of view will help you use messaging that resonates rather than repels.

If you have a solid general understanding of your audience, you can also use A/B testing to try out different approaches with them. With this strategy, you can use a different version of the same email (or mailer, billboard, etc.) for different audience segments and compare results. See how they receive a more humorous approach versus a more straightforward one, or try out angles that include humor in different ways.

P.S. It’s wise to also consider how people outside your target audience will perceive your message, particularly for more wide-reaching campaigns. Don’t assume your perspective is the only one. To avoid unintentional offense, appropriation or insensitivity, it’s important to talk to a diverse group of people about your ideas before they come to fruition. Even if your intentions are good and you feel certain your approach is innocuous, it’s always a smart idea to run it by people whose perspectives and experiences are different from yours. Everyone has their own biases based on their own experiences, so it’s important to give other points of view a seat at the table.

2. Tread lightly and speak normally.

If you use humor in your marketing, make sure you use it sparingly. If you try to utilize it in every sentence and scene, not only will it be less effective, it will appear to many people as if your brand is trying too hard. Part of being humorous is surprising the audience – subverting expectations and saying something they don’t expect. If you attempt to be clever into every phrase, it decreases the impact.

On a related note, avoid newer slang or phrases people don’t actually say. Rarely will a brand be perceived as relatable enough to use the same words teens are using, and your risk of “cringe” increases dramatically. On the flip side, try not to pack overly clever phrases into your copy or script in an attempt to be funny. Keep your tone conversational.

3. Make sure humor suits your voice and product.

At the risk of stating the obvious, don’t use humor to sell a serious product or service. The dissonance can make people feel uncomfortable, particularly if they have personal experience with the subject. But even if it doesn’t offend, it’s simply ineffective. Humor often works best when selling a product, especially with those already perceived to be humorous (or humor-adjacent).

It can also be very effective when highlighting a sort of “inside” joke or observation specific to the subculture of your product. It will connect you to your audience in a stronger way.

One great example of leaning into the humor already present with your brand’s problem or solution is Poo-Pourri. Of course, it’s not difficult to see why they pursued this route. If you’re not familiar, the product does exactly what it implies. It’s an essential-oil-based spray that disguises the smell of – well, you know – when sprayed directly into the toilet water beforehand. The combination of its effectiveness and creative marketing have built a significant amount of brand loyalty since its launch in 2006. Their memorable campaign below certainly left an impression. Now they’ve expanded their product line to eliminating all kinds of “funk.”

Another way humor can be effective is with products people perceive to be somewhat dull. This has been pervasive in the insurance industry with characters like AllState’s personified chaos-maker “Mayhem” and Progressive’s eager saleswoman “Flo.” Even Clorox has taken this approach with their “bleachable moments” campaign, highlighting life’s messy moments and asking people to share their own.

Depending on your brand personality, using humor in this way can be very effective. Consider your brand’s voice. How do you want to be perceived by your audience? Do you want to project authority? Would you rather be a visionary or a best friend? A teacher or a co-explorer with your customers? Using humor has to suit your brand’s personality to come across as authentic and relatable. 


When used properly, humor can be a great way to make a lasting impact with your target audience, particularly if you are selling a product. If you know your audience well, don’t overdo it and make sure it feels authentic to your brand, you can make a memorable impression with your marketing.

If you’re not sure who your target audience really is, what they want or how they perceive your brand, market research can be incredibly beneficial. If you want to learn more about market research options, hone your brand identity or sharpen your brand personality, we’d love to help. Contact our VP of Sales, Jenny Dwyer for more information at [email protected].


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