Funny money: why gags can be good for business

chattering teeth toy

Getting a giggle from your audience may save you several pages of empathetic waffling – and make a genuine connection instead.

Back in the 80s, when greed and mullets were good, Video Arts, a company led by the talent of John Cleese, was big news in the world of corporate communications. They revealed the miraculous possibility of sprinkling humour over it all. But the fashion didn’t last. Eventually, like the mullet, the popularity of the comedy corporate waned. But maybe we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

The great thing about humour is that it works because we share a culture. Just for fun, let’s murder and then deconstruct the best joke ever written. (I know it’s the best because it was number one in Channel 5’s Countdown of the World’s Hundred Best Cracker Jokes – as chosen by the cracker joke writers themselves.)

“My dog’s got no nose”

“How does he smell?”


Okay, stop laughing and calm down. This joke works because of a shared understanding of the English language. The joke teller and the audience both know that the verb ‘to smell’ can mean to create or to experience an olfactory sensation. This knowledge allows us to decode the conversation and see why the misunderstanding at the heart of this joke took place. Crucially, that misunderstanding is never stated. The joke is never explained. It is the act of working it out and solving the mystery that makes us feel closer to the joke teller. We have a shared and unspoken understanding.

Here’s another example. In the first paragraph of this rant, I said that the 80s were a time when ‘greed and mullets were good’. ‘Greed is good’ is a line from the 80s film, Wall Street. I yoked this expression to the terrible 80s men’s hair fashion, the mullet. To get the references (and maybe give the sentence a small smile), you need to be old enough to remember the 80s. If you are, this little joke, just like the understanding of the English language in the joke about a dog’s nose, unites the two of us. It says, ‘We’re a bit the same, you and me.’ Crucially, my attempt to make a connection had to be hidden – you had to spot the reference and congratulate yourself for getting it. The fact that you spotted the thing I hid, connects us. It makes us special and close.

Humour that says we both worry about the same things, share the same understanding of our language or our history, fear the same banana skins, can really help to bring a writer and their audience together. And it does this in a way that isn’t clunky or vulgar, because it’s built on hidden connections. It works because the listener solves the puzzle.

Now, I know that if you get it wrong, humour can be embarrassing. But if you get it right it can save you writing loads of copy that attempts to convince your reader that you have a connection with them.

One other thing. People like funny stuff. They find it less arduous to read or listen to – they’ll even seek it out. Our Santa Brand Book was seen by millions of business people and shared by thousands – people who wouldn’t have looked twice at a marketing brochure we mailed out. Our animation that compares investment risk to jumping off a shed has had thousands of viewers, many of whom have watched it several times. How many explanations of investment risk do you think people generally watch three times and then share with friends on Facebook?

So, while corporate writers may not want to make everything they write feel like an episode of Dad’s Army, it may be foolish for them to always put the giggles back in the box.

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