The use of humour in marketing to schools

By Tony Attwood

For many years we’ve experimented with using humour in marketing.

And from the start I must admit there are many who say you should never do this, because one person’s humour is to another person an indicator that one is a total idiot from whom nothing should be bought.

But it is also a fact that by far the biggest positive responses we have ever had either to direct mail or email advertisements has come from the humorous advertisements.

And yes, it is true, we get a number of complaints from people who think they are completely stupid, and that they will never buy form us again.  But where I have been ble to check these have come from people who have never bought from us in the first place.

Because we have been running humorous adverts for some 18 years we’ve had plenty of time to measure the response of humour in advertising, and been able to draw up a few rules – somethings worth doing and some not worth doing – as well as other observations we have made along the way.

1: Jokes don’t work.  I have seen a number of companies send out lists of jokes and generally they are treated with disdain.  I’ve never once seen this approach work.

2: Whenever you do something funny, there will be some people who don’t like it, generally responding if they do respond at all, with a note saying that they demand to be taken off your mailing list.  If you go down the humour route, you are going to lose some people – although probably not customers.

3: But if you get it right, you can get a significant loyal audience.  They might not be people who buy from you, but they will be people who like what you write, and admire the fact that you send them something utterly different from everyone else.  So in this regard you should never see humour as something that will bring in lots of orders now.  It is much more likely to serve you well as a regular addition to more serious advertisements.

4: Over the years we have found three forms of humour that work well.  One is the phrase repeated through adverts which are not necessarily particularly meaningful but which crop up regularly.  The best one we’ve ever tried is “No horseman will call”.  It was never explained and caused quite a debate when used as the last line of an advert.  Indeed I still drop it in occasionally.

The second is the on-going story.  Although, as you are on the site you may be familiar with the Toppled Bollard stories (tales built around a mythical pub on the border between Northamptonshire and Rutland) you might not know other tales we have run when aimed at people in schools.

One which was very popular was to school administrators telling of a school office in which the head and other managers made quite impossible demands which the administrators managed to resolve – often by doing something that was quite unexpected and which solved the problem by chance at the last second.

In a typical scenario the school seeks to save money by going to a new school meals supplier, and as a result there are multiple complaints from parents and an outbreaks of various unpleasant health issues.  With the school office phone ringing endlessly and half the school off with health issues as a result, the headteacher in our story goes to the administrator and says, “Can you write something to the parents to keep them happy,” and then goes off to a meeting.  The story is the struggle to write something.

In the end they write a letter which says that the meals had an ingredient in which aimed to raise intelligence but what they hadn’t realised was that children who were particularly intelligent already could suffer unfortunate consequences.  As a result those whose children were taken ill don’t complain because they are only ill because they are so bright, and the parents of those whose children were not taken ill, demand double portions.

It’s not the funniest sit com ever, but for an email read in a couple of minutes it worked.

Indeed when we stopped that series we were swamped with emails, including one asking for the rights to turn part of the tale into a play to be put on for an administrator’s retirement party.

The third approach, and probably the most successful is the quirky headline.  The most successful of which was probably, “Nw y knw wht t s lk t b dyslxc.”  Quirky usually involves toying with the reader as with “Six out of five parents believe that 103% of students should get more maths homework”.  As one teacher said to me, “you wrote that as a joke – in my school it is true.”

5: My prime suggestion is to use humour so that people remember you positively for it, but in doing so you must some might not like it.  What we then get are, “You’re the company that did that headline about dyslexia…”  In short we are remembered, which is what we want.

But if I may end with a word of warning.  Don’t use humour or quirkiness unless you are confident and willing to accept complaints.  You might well get some – the point is that because the funny, the silly and the quirky are so rare in advertising to schools, you will be noticed, and the buyers will far outweigh the complainers.  And if you are worried just send out a few and see what happens.


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