Punchlines & PR: Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

About the author

Andy Preacher prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

KFC: An apology brimming with authenticity
KFC: An apology brimming with authenticity
Andy Preacher
Andy Preacher

A few weeks ago, my team and I embarked on what, under normal circumstances, would have been a routine piece of employer branding promotional work. Our aim was clear: maintain our signature professionalism, keep it polished, deliver it on time – just as we always did.

However, this time, we decided to take a leap of faith.

We departed from our usual corporate sheen and embraced authenticity, allowing our presenters to simply be themselves. While not a ground-breaking venture, this time we preserved the genuine moments – the laughter, the blunders, the unfiltered and unscripted snippets.

The response from our audience was overwhelming. They found the “blooper reel” provided a unique window into our company culture and our organisational personality. Remarkably, this article became one of our most interacted-with pieces in recent memory, sparking vibrant online and offline conversations around its content.

This experience prompted me to ponder: is laughter truly the best medicine? Could the PR profession be overlooking a potent elixir that not only helps to “knock-knock” on more doors, but then gets us invited inside more often for a friendly chat?

Whether you’re a fan of Frank Spencer’s tongue-in-cheek absurdities or Frankie Boyle’s daring deadpan humour, the impact of laughter is backed by science. From the release of endorphins and stress reduction to its ability to nurture genuine, profound connections, laughter is indeed a remedy for all occasions.

Or is it…?

This question has certainly captured my attention, undeniably giving my metaphorical rubber chicken a bit of extra bounce.

Given our collective awareness of the profound physiological, psychological, and socially lubricating benefits of unfiltered, warts-and-all humour – humour as hearty as “yo’ momma’s” Sunday roast – it begs the question: if laughter is the best medicine, why isn’t the PR profession serving up more of it?

Why authentic humour isn’t just OK; it’s your brand’s best friend.

In a world where the incessant pursuit of perfection often steals the spotlight, campaigns saturated with meticulously constructed narratives and airbrushed imagery dominate.

A recent report by Kantar showed that the use of humour in PR has sadly been in decline for a while – and I think it’s time we take a moment to challenge ourselves. Humour as a creative tool can be a captivating device.

Humour has the potential to boldly challenge the conventional polished PR campaigns and build authentic connections with audiences

As alluring as a cream pie balanced in the hands of a mischievous scallywag, it has the potential to boldly challenge the conventional polished PR campaigns and build authentic connections with audiences. PR professionals brave enough to take that leap of faith have the opportunity, as others have, to realise the extraordinary power of humour as a catalyst for cultivating personal bonds with their audiences; sometimes even using it to acknowledge their own mistakes, and in doing so, revealing a sliver of their authentic human side in the process.

It’s this authenticity that really is the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to audience engagement. People yearn for these real connections, and the allure of humour lies in its ability to bridge the gap between brands and their consumers, offering them a refreshing departure from the usual script and a peek into the unfiltered, unedited, and genuine aspects of a brand’s personality.

Belly busters that became blockbusters: Lessons in connecting through humour

We’ve set the stage, so let’s get on with the punchlines and delve into a few delightful examples of companies that have hit the bullseye in their own way; where humour and authenticity have reigned supreme in their PR efforts. These stories show us that humour isn’t merely charming; it’s the fast-track to nurturing enduring brand adoration and quick-cementing lasting connections with audiences.

Why did the chicken cross the road…?

To apologise, of course.

In February 2018, in a situation that could have spelled PR disaster, KFC demonstrated the sheer power of embracing a touch of humour, honesty and humility. Faced with an ironic shortage of chicken that led to the closure of hundreds of UK stores, KFC took a bold approach to address the issue head-on. Rather than resorting to generic corporate statements, they took out full-page newspaper ads that rearranged the iconic KFC bucket letters to spell “FCK.” This ingenious move was an apology brimming with authenticity, and it struck a chord with consumers. By acknowledging their mistake with a blend of wit and sincerity, KFC diffused potential backlash, earning praise (and numerous awards as it happens!) for their unconventional response. A great example of where simplicity meets authentic humour.

 “A man on a horse walks into a bar…”: When humour just makes scents.

To this day, the woody notes of Old Spice still transport me at breakneck speed back to the early 1990s and the formative days of my rugby playing career. In a changing room that probably hadn’t seen a decent mop in a decade, the distinctive scent of Old Spice, which could be found in most kit bags of “men of a certain age”, enthusiastically drowned out other more offensive nostril ticklers.

Fast-forward 35 years, and a friend of mine recently told me how their fourteen-year-old son had just gone bonkers to get their hands on a bottle of Old Spice at the local supermarket! “Mam, mam, that’s what everyone as school is wearing – can we get some?”

And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely surprised.

Launched in 2010, Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, had a substantial impact on the Old Spice brand and left a legacy in not only the world of PR, but in pop culture itself. The campaign redefined Old Spice’s image; shifting the perception of the brand association with a more “mature audience” by injecting humour, wit, and a modern edge. The character of the Old Spice Man embodied a confident, humorous and charismatic persona that purposefully targeted and resonated with a much younger demographic.

The campaign’s launch video, in which the Old Spice Man delivers his iconic monologue in a series of rapid scene changes, went viral almost immediately. The video became a cultural phenomenon, shared extensively across social media platforms, and generating millions of views within days. The virality expanded the campaign’s reach and attracted global attention.

This witty front extended beyond the initial video. Old Spice maintained a strong presence on social media, responding with humour to comments and creating personalised videos for fans and celebrities.

This engagement strategy further solidified the brand’s image as personable, and most certainly in tune with its audience.

Taking the preservatives out of PR: When a campaign has the right ingredients.

Burger King’s “Mouldy Whopper” campaign, which launched in February 2020, was a highly unconventional PR approach with authenticity and a dollop of humour at its very mouldy core. Its aim was to highlight the company’s commitment to removing artificial preservatives and promoting the use of fresh ingredients in their products.

The concept centred around a series of visually striking advertisements featuring their flagship product, the Whopper, in a state of advanced decay. The campaign slogan was “The Beauty of No Artificial Preservatives,” emphasising the natural and fresh qualities of their ingredients.

The visuals were intended to be shocking, showcasing the contrast between Burger King’s real Whopper and burgers from competitors that don’t have the same proclivity for natural decomposition over time (due to the use of artificial preservatives) – pictures I’m sure most of us have seen shared across social media over the years.

Opinions were divided for sure, but what struck me was Burger King having the nerve to have a go with something that not only connected with a redirection in brand purpose, but something that also poked fun at the industry’s usually overly filtered and preservative packed PR campaigns; both aims undeniably succeeding in drawing attention to the company’s efforts to provide customers with something that for a change wasn’t covered (or pumped with) a thick plasticky gloss. The result: reports suggesting upward of 8 billion organic impressions from social media and in excess of 40 million in earned media – pretty impressive!

Crafting your quirks: Strategies for branding woven with wit and whimsy.

As we’ve seen, humour and authenticity can be powerful tools in PR. Together they achieve a powerful feat: they can engage audiences, humanise a brand, and certainly make messages more memorable. However, humour isn’t always a good idea, and businesses need to tread carefully as a poorly judged campaign can have a catastrophic effect on a brand’s public perception.

Take the example of London Dry Gin who horribly missed the mark when they referenced a tweet by Donald Trump in a social post about “shooting and looting” at the height of the #blacklivesmatter movement.

To avoid skidding on a banana skin and landing on one’s backside, here are just a few tips for PR professionals to consider when weighing up whether humour is the right route:

  1. Audience Sensitivity: Before you unleash your pun-tastic campaign, make sure you’re tickling the right funny bones. What’s hilarious to one group might be as appealing as wet bread to another. So, know your crowd!
  2. Cultural Sensitivity: Remember, humour doesn’t always speak the same language. Keep an eye out for cultural quirks, because what’s a knee-slapper in one place could be a total head-scratcher elsewhere. You don’t want your PR campaign to go from “LOL” to “WTF?” in the swipe of an Instagram post.
  3. Brand Voice and Values: Your brand has a personality. Ensure your humour doesn’t give it an identity crisis. Nobody likes a brand that flip-flops between dad jokes and Shakespearean sonnets. Consistency in tone is crucial to maintain brand credibility. That said, be a little bit brave. Humour can come in nudges; it doesn’t always have to hit like a pie in the face.
  4. Relevance: Don’t just throw humour at the wall and hope it sticks. Humour should relate to your message and campaign goals. Don’t use it just for the sake of it – it should enhance your message, not detract from it.
  5. Avoid Controversial Topics: Like the old TV adage about kids and animals, PR professionals should steer clear of hot-button topics like politics, religion, and social issues (a la London Dry Gin). Humour and controversy can be a dangerous cocktail which can easily backfire and alienate your audience.
  6. Keep it respectful: Making fun of individuals or groups is a one-way ticket to the PR doghouse. And remember, offensive language is about as welcome as a clown at a funeral.
  7. Legal Considerations: Don’t turn your campaign into a legal comedy of errors and remember that even humour has rules. Watch out for copyright and trademark issues, and steer clear entirely of anything disappearing down defamation alley.
  8. Measure Impact: Essential in any campaign, keep an eye on how your humour is landing. Track engagement, sentiment, and campaign goals.

From gaffs to grins: the final act.

In a world where brands work tirelessly to maintain an impeccable hair day, it’s time PR wakes up and realises that audiences yearn for a more authentic connection with their favourite labels, brands and organisations and bring much-needed human touch to the often overly filtered business of communications.

Whether its KFC’s finger-licking apology or the reinvigorated quick wit of Old Spice, these fearless companies understood that hiding behind a facade of perfection is like building an invisible moat between them and their audiences – a moat that at one end of the spectrum breeds mistrust, and at the other, fosters disinterest.

By bravely showcasing their quirks, embracing humour, and candidly admitting mistakes, we’ve seen brands successfully bridge this barrier and in doing so extend a warm invitation for a deeper, more personal connection.

And for the final encore, here’s a gem from 2018 that still tickles my funny bone – and one which fits, in my opinion, this debate perfectly.

In a world full of glossy campaigns, don’t forget that your audiences aren’t silly, they’ll always spot an airbrushed donkey.