Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The power of a laugh

Is the criticism of DirectTV’s advertising campaign fair?

There has been some sharp criticism of a DirectTV advertising campaign that uses stereotypical ethnic characters in a humorous way. The discussion has included several pieces, including those featuring Gregor the Russian millionaire and Whale the Asian casino guy. However, the spot that has garnered most of the critics is “The Truth”, which features an African American boxer. DirectTV actually pulled this commercial from YouTube following arguments about racial stereotyping and racism. While this specific ad may have crossed the line of what some viewers considered to be permissible, it is important that we do not generalize conclusions or completely rule out this type of approaches in advertising.

Millward Brown’s copy testing database clearly tells us that humor is a powerful tool to boost enjoyment of advertising and engage consumers. And within this concept, poking fun at stereotypes can be an effective option when used intelligently. A crucial lesson to keep in mind when playing in this field is that not all consumers perceive and react similarly to the same joke. So tailor your approach based on who you are talking to, and where you are doing it. Younger people, for instance, are more open to humor and making fun of stereotypes than older folks. Males and females can react quite differently too. And yes, acceptance of humor can be dramatically different across ethnic segments as well.

With regard to the last point, we have found that Hispanics are the group that is most open to humor in general. When it comes to advertising, for example, humor can work even with topics that would be considered sensitive or even untouchable for other segments, such as religion (Nationwide example). Poking fun at stereotypes has also been pretty common within Hispanic communication, with jokes focused on Latinos themselves, other ethnic groups or, a classic, the ‘American guy’ (Bud Light example).

Non-Hispanic Whites are next in the scale of humor acceptance. They can also be very open to different levels and types of wittiness, but you have to be cautious depending on who your specific audience is, especially if the joke is around stereotypes.

In the case of African Americans – the third group in our tolerance scale, while humor can also be effective, marketers must be more careful. Because of the fraught history of this group, the line between a funny joke and a stereotyped ad can be very fine. However, I believe that there is room for experimentation in this area, especially when targeting younger, post-civil rights Blacks who tend to be more open and willing to talk about (and poke fun at) sensitive points. The beer category has been active in this space (Miller Lite example).

Asian Americans tend to prefer more conservative formats vs. loud, off-the-wall, bizarre, or slapstick types of humor, which is the reason why I put them last on the tolerance scale.

Keep in mind that the above are just guidelines. Reactions can vary across different sub-segments within each ethnic group. But the overarching point here is that humor is powerful in advertising, and poking fun at stereotypes is a valid option, when done right. Trust in research to validate your hypotheses! And also remember that newer media options like online and mobile allow you to play with wider (and riskier) options of humor because you can be more surgical in your targeting, something that traditional and massive options like TV can’t always do.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 10, 2011 and is filed under David Burgos. You can leave a response.

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