Humor in Print Advertising (And Why You Should Avoid It)

Taco Bell's humorous chihuahua advertising campaign

Plenty of people laughed at the “¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!” dog… but few of them bought tacos as a result.

Using humor in your print advertising campaign is a trap that’s tempted many of us from time to time. After all, who doesn’t enjoy funny Super Bowl commercials or outrageous magazine ads? Some of the most famous ad campaigns of all time have been funny, such as the “Budweiser frogs,” “Geico gecko” or “Taco Bell chihuahua” commercials. If appeals to humor worked for them, why shouldn’t it work for you?

Well, for one thing, it often doesn’t work for them. The “Taco Bell dog” was certainly a popular campaign, but it actually resulted in a 6% decrease in sales for Taco Bell, which at the time was their largest quarterly decline ever.

Also, keep in mind that TV commercials are an entirely different animal from print advertising, which requires a very different approach. Funny copywriting certainly might be memorable… but it’s rarely the most effective of techniques. Here’s why.

  1. It’s all relative

    The main problem with humor is that it’s incredibly subjective. Everyone likes to laugh, but people don’t always laugh at the same things. What’s funny to one reader might fall completely flat for another, and it might outright offend someone else.

    Controversial Arano Advertisement

    Some might chuckle at this controversial advertisement, but many others found it offensive. This is the sort of polarizing effect that smaller businesses will want to avoid.
    Source: Ads of the World

    The example above is a little extreme, but copywriting doesn’t need to be risque or controversial to polarize audiences. Sarcasm is especially problematic; it can really darken your company’s image. Even if people don’t misconstrue your words as sincere (which is surprisingly common), they can make you sound bitter, malcontented and negative–rarely good qualities when you’re trying to sell something.

    Humor is culturally bound and it can vary drastically depending on region, age, personal preference and other factors. Unless your audience is incredibly specific, an appeal to humor is just too narrow to be very effective.

    Chances are that everyone in your particular demographic has something in common: a particular need or desire. If you focus your advertising techniques on fulfilling the needs of your prospects rather than making them laugh, you’ll have a much higher rate of success.

  2. It derails the reader

    One of the defining characteristics of humor in advertising is that it distracts people’s attention. In certain cases, the distracting effect of humor might be exactly what you want. For example, if your materials are surrounded by similar ads from other companies (such as the rack cards seen in some restaurants and rest stops), a little humor can help them to stand out.

    But when using print advertising strategies with the goal of conversion, trying to be funny only derails your reader away from your core message; you’re effectively distracting from yourself.

    Sales Letter with Poor Use of Humor

    The joke in this sales letter is a bit of a thinker and falls rather flat. It also distracts attention away from your primary message.

    Humorous writing might make the reader laugh, but will it convince them to buy your product? Weeks later, they might remember that funny sales letter they read, but will they even remember what it was promoting?

    In worst-case scenarios, funny advertising can actually draw your audience’s attention toward negative thoughts about your product. Think back to the “Taco Bell chihuahua;” is suggesting that dogs like to eat your food really the most appetizing message?

    With written advertising, your focus should almost always be on selling your product; more often than not, humor only gets in the way of that.

  3. It can work against your brand

    Spirit Airlines Advertising with Controversial Humor

    This ad for Spirit Airlines appears to make light of the BP oil spill.

    A fundamental part of good marketing is finding your company’s voice. Perhaps you’ve spent a long time cultivating an image of dependability, respectability and professionalism. Unfortunately, it’s easy to counteract all of that with a simple one-liner.

    Spirit Airlines is infamous for their long history of advertising with questionable humor. One ad from 2010 seemed to reference the disastrous BP oil spill, complete with the tagline “Check Out The Oil On Our Beaches” and a green-and-yellow bottle of “Best Protection” sunscreen. Two years earlier, the company promoted three sales at once with the announcement “We’re having a threesome. Join us in the fun.”

    At first glance, this type of advertising wouldn’t seem like a great PR move — but Spirit’s gotten away with it where other companies might not. Their brand is consistently edgy, silly, maybe even a bit sleazy — and incredibly, it actually seems to work. The Wall Street Journal has even called them the most profitable airline in the U.S.

    Humor (even controversial humor) suits Spirit well because it fits with their offbeat brand personality. But most businesses (especially smaller businesses) don’t have this type of branding, and even a tame joke would make them look pretty unprofessional.

    Imagine a serious, no-nonsense doctor that you’ve counted on for years because they always give you the straight, honest truth about your health and medical needs. Then, one day you walk into their office and they’ve suddenly turned into Patch Adams: acting silly and cracking jokes at every opportunity. Sure, everyone loves jokes (and some people even like Robin Williams), but you came to this doctor because of their direct and to-the-point personality. If that personality suddenly changes, you might reconsider coming back.

    If your company doesn’t have a history of being funny, then trying to be funny out of the blue only works against you.


Being funny isn’t always a non-starter when it comes to print advertising. There are certain situations where using humor in copywriting is advantageous. If done well (such as in the quirky ad below), it can endear your company to consumers–especially if being humorous is an established part of your brand.

Funny Ad for Kiss FM 97.7

This promotion fits well with Kiss FM’s personality and appeals to the nostalgic sensibility of its target audience.

On the whole, however, appeals to humor just aren’t reliable enough to regularly incorporate into your print advertising. If you do use it, use it very sparingly, and only in situations where it won’t counteract your goal of selling a product or service.

Posted in Copywriting

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Printwand Staff
Author: Printwand Staff

Our marketing, design and printing experts are passionate about sharing their knowledge. We're eager to help make your vision a reality in print. Be sure to explore the rest of the Printwand blog for more reliable, easy-to-understand information.

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